This season will mark the 48th appearance of my mom’s holiday punch at our family holiday party. This tradition was born of her newlywed need to create a cocktail that cost little and went far. Prior to her generation, the men in her family sipped on beer and whiskey and the women fancied high balls and whiskey sours. As the new host of Christmas Eve Dinner, she couldn’t afford the tastes of her forefathers and mothers.

I presume her punch recipe has withstood the test of time because it is so simple to make, but more so because it is tradition. It is what we do. We make the punch.

So, when I asked Mom for the recipe (I’ve never made it), she chuckled and texted me a picture of her Better Homes and Garden Cook Book that she said “every bride received in the 1960s and 70s.” Okay, so it isn’t a family recipe. But, we own it like it is. We make the punch.

Growing up in our house, Christmas Eve was much anticipated. This was the day our entire family—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—would gather to celebrate. Each year, the festivities were hosted by a different family unit, but everyone came. Whether a 30-minute drive or a three-hour drive, you didn’t miss Christmas Eve.

The punch was necessary, you see, because Santa would visit our little celebration each Christmas Eve. And, in order to get your first gift, you had to sing for the big guy. This was especially fun when a new significant other was introduced to the family. There’s nothing better than public humiliation to separate the wheat from the chaff, but we lost quite a few good prospects over the years.

So, each year as the Christmas decorations came down from the attic, so did the songbooks. My sister, Sharon, and I would pore over the books to make our selection for the “big show.” For years and years (and decades before we were born), we placated Santa with musical mumblings of “Jingle Bells,” “O Christmas Tree,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

But one year it all changed.

Maybe it was the punch.

Maybe it was the festive green Jell-O mold decorated with maraschino cherries.

Whatever it was, my great-uncle Al and great-aunt Madeleine upped the ante. That year, Santa didn’t just get lyrics. He got a choreographed routine to the tune of “Away in the Manger” that would have put the Von Trapp children to shame—hand gestures, fancy footwork, and a little miming to boot. Uncle Al and Aunt Madeleine stole the show and the competition was on.

After that year, it became each family unit’s mission to outsing and outdance the others. We added background music, dance steps, lip-synchs, and song parodies. This was serious business. And, it became a new tradition. One that we still continue today since my “branch” of the family tree migrated south.

My branch will celebrate its 13th Lowcountry Christmas this year. We will sing and we will drink punch.

 

The Recipe

Yield:

12–14 four-ounce servings

¾ cup water

¾ cup sugar

6-inch cinnamon stick

1 tsp cloves (whole)

Dash of salt

2 cups Zinfandel wine (chilled)

1 qt cranberry apple juice

In a saucepan, combine water, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes. Strain the spices and chill the liquid. Combine chilled mixture with wine and cranberry apple juice. This recipe makes 12–14 four-ounce servings. If your family is anything like mine, quadruple the recipe.

Kick it up a notch?

Just because it’s a mulled wine doesn’t mean the cheapest red you can find will do. (Really, Mom, we can use a nicer bottle. And maybe ditch the box?) Try a Zinfandel from the Sonoma Coast, as these reds have a naturally sweet quality, use oak, but feature vanilla and spice tones.

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