Old Time Christmas Drink & Sweets Recipes

Introduction: In this article, Mary Harrell-Sesniak searches old newspapers to find our ancestors’ Christmas recipes. Mary is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background.

Of Christmas past, it’s fun to imagine what the ideal or perfect recipes tasted like. Luckily, we can still find our ancestors’ holiday recipes in old newspapers – and in many cases, they are easy to follow and convert well to modern kitchens.

Make this Christmas special by including some of these drinks and sweets along with your own traditional dishes. And if they work for you, please share your comments with our readers.

The Wassail Bowl (1829)

A mainstay of the past was the wassail bowl, but have you ever heard how to prepare it?

Photo: a pot of wassail
Photo: a pot of wassail. Credit: Jeremy Tarling; Wikimedia Commons.

In 1829, the New Monthly Magazine provided a popular recipe which serves 12-16 persons. It seems simple to follow, so why don’t you try it?

  • A large bowl
  • A small quantity of spices (cardamon, clove, nutmeg, mace, ginger, cinnamon and coriander) simmered in a teacupful of water for 15-20 minutes
  • Four bottles of dry wine or one that is not sweet
  • Add the spices and 1½ pounds of loaf sugar (up to a half box of sugar cubes will suffice) and heat
  • Beat the yolks of 12 eggs and the whites of six eggs
  • Take a tea-cupful of the wine sugar mixture and mix it in the egg mixture
  • Continue adding and mixing 3-4 cups of the warm wine mixture
  • Let it boil and add the rest stirring briskly so as to froth it
  • As soon as it froths toss in a dozen well-roasted apples and serve it as hot as possible!
  • Enjoy!
A recipe for wassail, Atlas; or Literary, Historical and Commercial Reporter newspaper article 14 March 1829
Atlas; or Literary, Historical and Commercial Reporter (New York, New York), 14 March 1829, page 3

Snow Pudding (1885)

  • Take half a box of gelatin and half a pint of cold water
  • After soaking half an hour, add half a pint of boiling water
  • When cool, add the whites of 3 eggs, 2 cups sugar and the juice of 2 lemons
  • Beat for a half an hour or more
  • Make a boiled custard of the yolks of the eggs and 1½ pints of milk
  • Add sugar to taste
  • Wine in the solid part will improve the pudding
  • Serve the solid part floating in the custard
A recipe for snow pudding, Ann Arbor Democrat newspaper article 25 December 1885
Ann Arbor Democrat (Ann Arbor, Michigan), 25 December 1885, page 5

Eggnog (1905)

This is always a holiday favorite!

Photo: a glass of eggnog
Photo: a glass of eggnog. Credit: Dinner Series; Wikimedia Commons.
  • Beat the whites and yolks of 18 fresh eggs separately until both are as light as possible
  • While beating the yolks, stir in 18 tablespoons of pulverized sugar
  • Take 15 wine glassfuls of the best French Brandy, 6 of old Jamaica Rum and mix in a pitcher
  • Pour the liquor very slowly on the yolks of the eggs and the sugar, stirring until thoroughly mixed
  • According to the recipe, the process cooks the eggs
  • Add very slowly 1 quart of rich cream and 1 quart of milk until well mixed
  • Pour the mixture into a punch bowl and add the egg whites until all is perfectly blended
  • It will improve if kept an hour or two in a cold place (the refrigerator), occasionally stirring from the bottom of the bowl
A recipe for eggnog, Evening Star newspaper article 31 December 1905
Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 31 December 1905, page 54

Fruit Cake (1920)

This recipe intrigued me because it includes a clever secret ingredient to a traditional fruitcake recipe: coffee!

Photo: fruitcake
Photo: fruitcake. Credit: Don Ramey Logan; Wikimedia Commons.
  • Cream 1 cup of butter with 2 cups of powdered sugar
  • Add well beaten yolks of 6 eggs and beat hard
  • Stir in 1½ cups of sifted and prepared flour
  • Add ½ pound each of seeded and chopped raisins and cleaned and stemmed currants
  • Add 1 cup cold coffee, strong enough to make a decided flavor to the cake
  • Add ¼ pound of shredded citron – all the fruit plentifully dredged with flour
  • Turn into a deep tin, well-greased, and bake in a steady oven until a straw (after inserting) comes out clean from the thickest part of the loaf
A recipe for fruitcake, Kansas City Star newspaper article 16 November 1920
Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri), 16 November 1920, page 20

Plum Pudding (1920)

I’d like to leave you with an adaptation of a widely published plum pudding recipe courtesy of Good Housekeeping.

Photo: Christmas Plum Pudding, decorated with skimmia rather than holly
Photo: Christmas Plum Pudding, decorated with skimmia rather than holly. Credit: Musical Linguist; Wikimedia Commons.
  • Chop until fine 1½ pounds each of currants and seeded raisins, ½ pound each of candied orange-peel and citron, and 1 pound of suet
  • Mix all together and then add the following:
  • 1 pound of stale, but not dry, bread crumbs
  • The yolks of 8 eggs beaten until light
  • ¾ of a grated nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1½ cupfuls of dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of cider, white grape juice or coffee
  • The stiffly beaten whites of 7 eggs
  • Put the mixture in buttered bowls, cover with a flowered cloth or parchment paper
  • Tie down well and plunge into water which is boiling hard and cook 2½ hours or, if using steam, 2½ hours longer
A receipe for plum pudding, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 28 November 1920
Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 28 November 1920, page 14

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand what food people at that time ate, how they celebrated their holidays, what clothes were fashionable, etc.

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