Christmas Ale O’er the Sea

As we saw the other day, in 1857-1860 Hallett & Abbey advertised in Brighton, England their Christmas Ale.

Just a few years later, an American saloon did the same, the Hole-in-the-Wall (HITW) in Sprague’s Alley near Fulton Street in Brooklyn, New York. Ads in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle between 1865 and 1867 trumpeted that “Thomas” would “broach” his Christmas Ale.

A string of ads may be seen here, of which this example was typical (via the Daily Eagle archive linked):



A park, Cadman Plaza, now covers the street where saloon-keeper Thomas ministered to his faithful. See the Forgotten New York site for useful background.

The photo below (via Wikipedia) recorded the land assembly for the park in 1936. It seems likely one of the crosswise roads or paths traced the old alley where HITW had been.



The earthy name was almost certainly inspired by English example, perhaps the one under a railway arch next to Waterloo Station, London.

The ads state that HITW offered patrons “the London papers”, a further clue to its character.

As in Britain, it wasn’t common in the U.S., then or later, to brand a beer Christmas Ale. The occasional example made express the old connection between ale and the Yule period, however.

Before 1980, a few American breweries did advertise a Christmas Beer here and there. In 2016 Judy Steffes of the Washington County Insider recalled the mid-century Lithia Christmas Beer, from Wisconsin.

But paging through James Robertson’s (1978) The Connoisseur’s Guide to Beer I could not find a single example of a Christmas ale or beer, American or other.

He did include a Holiday Beer from Potosi, WI, but the brewery name was Holiday Brewing.

The few Christmas beers of that era were probably a standard item in inventory, maybe made a little stronger or darker. Lithia in fact came in a special dark version, as Steffes recorded.

Of course breweries might advertise their regular line at Christmas, linking them to festivity, just as ale in Britain was always linked to Yuletime, in a general way.

Our Thomas of 1860s Brooklyn seemed quite the man, judging by the monikers “Immortal Thomas” and “presiding genius”.

As ancestrally for the bar trade, his no doubt ebullient character defined the house atmosphere, drew the crowds. He may well have been of British origin as many 1800s American barkeeps were, or Irish.

The Jones Brewery in New York advertised its English-style beers just below some of the HITW ads. The brewery was located on Sixth Street in Manhattan. I think probably it supplied Thomas’ Christmas Ale.

Indeed Jones probably paid for both ads to appear. A hand-in-glove arrangement, of course.

The Christmas Ale was advertised in December and January mainly, occasionally in February and sometimes (skipping March) in April. Why April is hard to say, maybe Thomas held back a keg to be opened later for an unexpected treat.

It is within the realm of possibility that he did this to parry the growing appeal of springtime German bock beer.

Christmas Ale was brewed traditionally in England on December 21 and typically consumed in December and January, as we saw earlier. As the bulk of Thomas’ ads appeared in December and January, that part ties in, too.

I discussed earlier that December 21 was St. Thomas Day in the old Catholic calendar.

How strange that a namesake over the sea, in Walt Whitman’s America, served a specialty of Christmas Ale.

Was it an in-joke, possibly? “Dang it Johnnie, why did the Eagle call ya Thomas, got a silent partner by that name, mebbe?”.

Mebbe, mebbe not.

Note re images: Images above were sourced from the links identified and stated in text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.



5 thoughts on “Christmas Ale O’er the Sea”

  1. This post from Boak and Bailey talks about the history of Christmas ales:

    He notes that Anchor had a spiced Christmas Ale in 1975 and Charles Wells had a Christmas Ale too, but suggests the specific branding of ales as “Christmas” took off later than that.

    Which seems to fit in with your point here that references exist for a long time, but the connection was fairly casual.

    • Thanks for this. Since especially the onset of craft, a number of articles, and at least one book, have been written on the topic. I may have read B&B’s piece years ago, and good to know our conclusions broadly accord on the branding aspect.

      In my current posts I was mainly concerned to find early (1800s-era) Christmas ale brandings, in the U.K. and North America.


      • Keith, if you are still reading, I had the chance to look at the B&B link, I had read it years back because I contributed a comment to it. They link to other discussions, including by R. Pattinson.

        As I mentioned in the first reply, there have been numerous articles in recent decades, including in the American beer press, AAB and similar. Plus a book as I mentioned, I haven’t read it, but saw reference to it on Google Books. I can find name if you don’t know it.

        I think my summary of the more recent situation is largely in accord with their views, however 1857 precedes any of their citations, as far as I can tell. So insofar as 1800s citations go, the Hallett & Abbey Christmas Ale I discuss in this string of posts, appears to be the earliest so far, branded that is. Also, the fact of St. Thomas Day (December 21) being a brewing day and the Messedag have not been referenced earlier in beer historical study, to my knowledge, fwiw.

        My reference to the Belgian and French Xmas Ales, Navy, Campbell’s, and the rest is more a matter of impression, that those places seemed to rely on Xmas branding inter- and especially postwar more than elsewhere and it helped stimulate the craft practice, along with Anchor’s example.

        • Thanks for the additional info. I think you were right in the previous post that it wasn’t exactly a straight line to the 1857 ale but there was a connection. I think the tap root analogy is apt for a lot of language, with lots of hidden branching underground. The surface manifestation may die back periodically, but then spring back to view from the underlying concept, although maybe in a somewhat modified form.


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