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In Class at the CIA: Tis The Season

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Up the frosty Hudson Valley at the CIA, the students are hard at work getting their work wrapped up before their holiday break. We’re right in the thick of the festive season. Thanksgiving is just far enough behind us that we’re willing to eat turkey again. Christmas and Hannukah aren’t quite so close that you need to panic about shopping yet, according to some people. And New Year’s Eve hunkers just around the corner, striking terror into those who use public transit and bringing joy to those who need an excuse to drink champagne.

These busy weeks are steeped in traditions, from your family shopping trip to more ancient rites. We’ve gathered some of our favorites from across the globe and throughout history to spice up your holiday season. It’s totally fine to stick with the tried and true, but we think it’s more fun to try out some new celebrations.

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Jul Love It: The tradition of drinking strong, malty beers around Christmas goes back to its pagan roots in Viking culture. The Jul, or “Yule,” holiday, was toasted with an eponymous beverage raised in honor of Odin, Freya, and numerous other Norse gods that required tribute in harsh winter months. Even after adopting Christianity, leaders like King Haakon 1 in the tenth century and rulers behind the 13th century Gulathing laws established rules that each household should brew their own Yuletime beer and hold some sort of party, or face the harsh consequences. We shudder to think of the penalties for missing a Yankee Swap with that crowd.

New World Christmas Beers: Scandinavian settlers brought their treasured Yule beers to the New World as far back as the 17th century. With the increase in commercial beer production seen in the 19th and 20th centuries, American and British brewers alike adopted this noble tradition for their own and fused it with their own traditions. One anonymous British correspondent coolly noted that these Nordic-inspired brews were “pleasing to the palate, but heady.”

Remember Your Russian: Winter months also inspired a litany of Russian celebrations, often governed by a fairly strict drinking structure. The meal begins with a rapid succession of shots over cold plates called zakuski, encouraging communal eating and drinking that carried through the main dishes. Throughout the proceedings, the pace and intensity of drinking is set by the tamada, a figure that emerges as a sort of leader of the party in an organic way. This isn’t about asserting your dominance like Festivus; this is about honoring your host. Remember to raise your shot glass high, and practice your pronunciation of vashe zrodovye!

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A Wassailing We Will Go: Long a mysterious section of Christmas carol lyrics, actual wassailing is a simple practice. A group would gather around the largest punch bowl available and concoct a traditional mixture of mulled ale, spiced wine, cream, allspice, and pretty much anything remotely palatable, and set to saluting one another. The traditional cry of “Wassail!” developed from the Anglo-Saxon “Waes hael!,” meaning “good health.” Everyone would drink deeply, refill their cups, and repeat the process until the bowl was empty. At that point, the merrymakers would set forth to carol, entertain, and harass their neighbors until they could scrape together the makings of their next bowl. Think of it as a festive kegger from a time without noise violations.

Stand Clear: Sabering champagne has been a revered party trick since the Napoleonic Wars. Some credit the trick to Napoleon himself, leaning on his quote, “Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat, one needs it.” Others credit the widowed Madame Clicquot, who took over her late husband’s champagne house at the age of 27 and turned it into an international icon. Whatever the origin, remember the key tricks: get the neck of the bottle as cold as possible, strike the seam line of the bottle on an angle just below the cork, and make sure you’re not pointing the bottle or the saber at anyone. Perhaps most importantly, practice on your own before going out and ruining a party.

Hometown Pride: The town of Northport, New York, located about an hour east of New York City on Long Island, celebrated it’s eleventh annual Leg Lamp Lighting Ceremony this year. The ceremony kicks off the holiday season by lighting a leg lamp in the style made famous by the seminal classic Christmas Story, and stays lit as a beacon of hope and awkward questions throughout the season. What does this have to do with drinking tradition, you ask? Not much, aside from the ceremony’s proximity to the excellent Sand City Brewing Company. This entry is purely a look into your trusty author’s strange little world.

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No matter how you celebrate, remember: drink well, stay safe, and spread cheer. And if you do end up on Long Island, good luck. Happy holidays!

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