There are many traditions of Christmas punch in Europe, north America and south America, involving special ingredients for celebration and, in the northern hemisphere, an emphasis on a warming drink with symbolic flames for the darkest and coldest nights of the year.
The middle decades of the nineteenth century in Britain were the heyday of hot Christmas punch, popularized in fiction with descriptions of a white, snowy Christmas with familial cheer around a fire, and plentiful food and drink. An 1826 nostalgic portrait of a country squire depicted him as celebrating feast days such as Christmas with ‘a bowl of strong brandy punch, garnished with a toast and nutmeg’ with neighbours ‘round a glowing fire, and told and heard the … tales of the village.’
Illustration by John Leech for the 1843 edition of ‘A Christmas Carol’ showing Scrooge serving steaming punch by the fire
In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) Scrooge ‘sees’ a vision of how Christmas should be, where the feast is topped by ‘seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.’ This novel had a major impact in both Britain and America on the Christmas image, with the feeling of good will to neighbours, bountiful feasts and, of course, the Christmas bowl of punch.
In 1847 Dickens gave his recipe for a flaming Christmas rum-based punch in a letter:
“To make three pints, take a strong, common basin (which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner’s peace or pocket) and in it place the finely sliced rinds of three lemons, a double-handful of sugar lumps, a pint of dark rum and a large wine glass of brandy. Set alight and allow to burn for three or four minutes (extinguish by covering with a lid). Add the juice of three lemons and a quart of boiling water. Stir, cover, leave for five minutes and stir again. Taste and sweeten if necessary, but observe that it will be a little sweeter presently. Pour into an ovenproof jug or bowl and cover with a leather cloth* . Place in a hot oven for 10 minutes. Remove the lemon rind before serving.”
*Nowadays grease-proof paper could be used to replace the leather cloth.
Dickens’s reference to the punch taking on a sweeter taste is due to the burning of the alcohol. Depending on the length of time the drink is allowed to burn, this reduces the liquid content of the drink, concentrating the flavours to make the taste richer and deeper.
An illustration from Dickens’s ‘David Copperfield’ showing Mr Micawber making punch
Punch features again in Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850), in chapter 28 ‘Mr Micawber’s Gauntlet’ with this wonderful description of Mr Micawber forgetting his worries as he immerses himself in the making of a steaming bowl of rum punch.
“I never saw a man [Mr. Micawber] so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, ….”
In the novel Christmas at the Cross Keys (1853, by Keller Deene / Charlotte Smith), the Christmas punch is hot and included port, but was not flamed: ‘He put in port wine, lemons, sugar, brandy, spice, and rum, and hot water at discretion.’
But flaming punch was obviously a popular Christmas tradition, with Frenchman Louis Blanc writing in January 1863, of the opulence of an English Christmas at which was served ‘flaming bowls of punch.’