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What is the Tradition Behind Eggnog?

Last Updated on January 26, 2022

It’s hard to believe that amidst all holiday celebrations, there lies a tradition of gargling down an alcohol-infused milky egg-yolk beverage while sitting around a table waiting for Santa to come. As legend would have it, it’s a good idea to finish all the eggnog before Santa arrives, as he has been known to throw back a few of his favorite holiday beverages while washing down stray cookies. So, where did this eggnog beverage come from, and how did it crack its way into the holiday tradition?

A brief history of Eggnog

Eggnog seems to have started with some of the least likely culprits- the medieval monks of 13th century Britain who enjoyed drinking “posset,” a hot and milky ale mixed with raw eggs and figs. The drink was to be enjoyed and was used to fight colds and the flu. Throughout the next 400 years, this base was mixed with various ales, wines, and milk variations and emerged as an aristocratic drink savored at social gatherings.

By the early 17th century, it was being served as a sherry-infused cocktail all over Europe. Since eggs, milk, and sherry were all scarce and expensive products, only the wealthy could afford to indulge and often did so with a toast to good health and prosperity. Despite already being a drink limited to specific social gatherings, there was no evidence that eggnog was exclusively festive. 

Early colonial adaptation

By the 1700s, eggnog had found its way in the American colonies, where the brew recipe ditched the expensive sherry and substituted inexpensive Caribbean rum. At that time, the agriculturally focused colonies had no shortage of chickens and cows, and eggnog quickly became a drink of every man, not only the wealthy man. As the beverage flowed through the states, it matured into a whiskey base in the south, an alcohol-free base for the non-sinners, and even a vanilla-cinnamon “rompope” across the border in Mexico.

Despite its mainstream adoption, the drink still held favor with the aristocracy of the new world. At Mount Vernon, George Washington himself was said to welcome his guests with a homemade eggnog recipe containing “½ pint rye whiskey, ½ pint Jamaican rum, and ½ pint sherry.” While historians have challenged the authenticity of this “handwritten” boozy concoction, there is no doubt that eggnog was most certainly a popular drink at the time. 

Where did the term “Eggnog” come from?

The origins and history of the word “eggnog” are debated among academics, with two main theories presented.

The first theory argues the word derives from a mixture of “egg” and “nog,” the latter meaning a “strong ale.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, nog was a “kind of strong beer brewed in East Anglia.” This term was used commonly in the American colonies to describe a strong ale, so adding “egg” to the title was a logical way of naming the beverage. Many academics believe this term was Americanized in the late 1700s, and that the original British version of the drink was referred to as an “egg flip,” describing the action of “flipping” or pouring the drink in between two pitchers or glasses as a means to mix the yolks.

The second theory draws more criticism yet is fun to mention. According to food history professor Frederick Douglass Opie, the term “eggnog” came from the combination of two slang words, “grog” and “noggin.” Grog was a colonial term for rum, and noggin was the name given to the wooden mug the bartenders served drinks in. Opie deduced that the drink was first called egg-n-grog and then later eggnog.   

Why is Eggnog a Christmas beverage?

The reason eggnog became so exclusively tied to the holiday season is not entirely understood. The drink continued to grow in popularity during the winter months and subsequent holiday seasons, most likely due to it being served at a warm temperature with a healthy mixture of holiday spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla.

Winter brought an opportune time to consume a creamy, heavy alcoholic beverage, something not equally desired during the warm summer months. Summer was a time for working the fields all day, while winter was reserved for sitting around, staying warm, and consuming your summer grain stores by distilling whiskey. 

References:

Colleen, Graham. “The Origins of Eggnog: A Favorite Christmas Cocktail.” 13 Aug 2021. The Spruce Eats Web. Accessed 15 Dec 2021. <https://www.thespruceeats.com/origins-of-eggnog-76017>

Dias, Elizabeth. “A Brief History of Eggnog.” 21 Dec 2011. Time Web. Accessed 15 Dec 2021. <https://time.com/3957265/history-of-eggnog/>

“George Washington’s Christmas Eggnog.” 29 Nov 2021. Almanac.com Web. Accessed 15 Dec 2021. <https://www.almanac.com/george-washingtons-christmas-eggnog>

Diamond, Madeline. “Here’s why everyone drinks eggnog on Christmas.” 17 Dec 2017. Insider Web. Accessed 15 Dec 2021.  <https://www.insider.com/why-people-drink-eggnog-christmas-2017-12>

Malloy, Chris. “Why Do We Drink Eggnog at Christmas?” 1 May 2019. Kitchn Web. Accessed 15 Dec 2021. <https://www.thekitchn.com/why-we-drink-eggnog-at-christmas-226791>

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