Ale, Christmas, St. Thomas, December 21

I have now reviewed dozens of 19th century references to Christmas and ale, to learn the cause of the seasonal association. There is one, or so I’ve concluded: St. Thomas’ Feast Day. St. Thomas of course was one of the 12 apostles. December 21 was originally his day, devoted to Christmas preparations.

The date was later changed in the Catholic calendar to July 3, but some Anglicans still remember the earlier date. December 21 (this Monday) is the Solstice, the shortest day of the year in our part of the hemisphere. On that day in England and many parts of northern Europe, Christmas preparations began: preserving, baking, mending garments or tools, etc.

John Harland, in a journal of archeological and religious history in 1865, explained an old practice of recording the days by pictograms on sticks or staves. In a chronology drawn from one of these, December 21 is the day “Christmas ale” was brewed. Often a barrel was engraved to convey its significance to a pre-literate society.

A modern (2017) blog account of St. Thomas’ Day references the tradition especially in a Norwegian context, but it existed in various northern places. Different names for the stick have recognizable variants in the different places.

“Messedag stick” was one term known in England, Mass Day that is. The blog account includes a detail of a stick showing a barrel and drinker for 21 December. A second stick appears to depict a tub of some kind, for mashing or fermenting on that day.

Other accounts suggest in Norway, the beer was actually tasted on December 21 and hopefully pronounced good, therefore with brewing taking place earlier. Some discussions suggest the beer was subjected to fermentation on December 21, so this comes back to brewing on the day, broadly speaking.

One way or another, the day was connected to beer to be enjoyed at Christmas and through Yule-time. Of course this beer would be “mild” at Christmastime, meaning newly brewed. This does not mean all Christmas beer was new beer.

But the fact that freshly-brewed (mild) beer was often associated with Noel, in many cases made from husbanded ingredients, shows a connection to St. Thomas Day, in my view.

According to the Harland account the Winterside of the stick reflected that for January 13, the 20th day after Christmas, “Christmas ale is then finished”. The pictogram shows an upturned horn or barrel. Points for clarity to the craftsmen of these devices.

So this gives an idea how long is the taproot of Christmas and ale. Does this form a straight line to Hallett & Abbey’s Christmas Mild Ale of 1857-1860? No, but it’s all connected.

Unlike much that concerns brewing history, beer style is not the point here. The type of beer would have varied depending where, and by whom, it was made. The keynotes here are brewing as such, the Yule period, and Christianity.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.