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Whitey's thoughts on Christmas drinking


For a twist on the traditional Christmas drinks column, Philip White ponders the various legends of Yuletide consumption – including one which suggests magic mushrooms may explain the story of Santa and his ‘flying’ reindeer.

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Without seeming too curmudgeonly, after 40 years writing them, it’s tricky to decide on the credible Christmas drinks yarn.

You have a young carpenter and his wife on their way to pay their taxes in Roman-occupied Palestine when she, a virgin, gives birth to the son of God in a stable out the back of a packed pub in Nazareth. Or you have something a touch more credible about Siberians eating fly agaric toadstools – Amanita muscaria – to warm up and trip out in the frigid weeks of darkness around the winter solstice.

Like all good yarns, both these legendary seeds grow some mighty branches of nonsense which provide the polished bullshitter fabulous opportunities for extrapolation. One can start presuming that whoever Jesus’s father hired as a ghost writer endorsed tax-paying. This is something the incredibly wealthy churches hot-listed in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse should be paying like everybody else, at least while they insist on maintaining their pious immunity from the common law and their protection of the money-changers in their extravagant temples.

As far as the hallucinogenic mushrooms go, it seems reindeer love the polka-dot ones that grow beneath “Christmas” trees and gave Santa his red-and-white attire, while their kidneys conveniently remove the fungi’s toxins which make humans feverish and bilious. So the best way for those old northerners to enjoy the trip was to drink the reindeers’ urine, where the good bits were concentrated.

Word is the fly agaric [which is today classified as poisonous] made reindeer so frisky the hallucinating humans thought the beasts were preparing to fly. If there were no tripping reindeer handy, it is said a shaman type would risk the sweats and vomiting and eat the mushrooms so the rest of the group could safely drink his urine.

The purpose of a yuletide drinks column is to suggest lists of superior ethanols to replace that traditional seasonal libation in this reindeer-free austral isle where it’s illegal to eat the toadstools – which don’t grow in summer anyway –     and there’s not much along the lines of recreational or ritual drinking of your actual piss going down.

One needs to journey above 60 degrees north to appreciate how small the Arctic is. The Mercator projection maps my generation sat beneath in our post-war schoolrooms stretched Greenland to the size of Africa. The point of geographic north was as long as the Equator. Take a look down on a globe from above the North Pole and you’ll get my drift. Those deep northern communities are really quite close to each other. It’s easy to see how such ancient yarns, and indeed the yuletide rituals, traversed the icy northern lands with traded furs and fish and were spread by mobs like the Vikings, to eventually be melded into the Jesus story when the Norsemen adopted Christianity.

We know that at about the time of this gradual conversion the Vikings were aficionados of four styles of ethanol. In his Edda, the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson (1179 – 1241) delineated this neatly with his Tilsagt verse. His book was a primer to teach aspirant writers the arts of addressing kings, and gives various pristine examples of poems and speeches, using the fading legends of the time to fill his templates.

Here are his four couplets, followed by the translations of Anthony Faulkes, who was Professor of Old Icelandic at the University of Birmingham:

Röst gefr ödlingr iastar
– öl virdi esvá – fyrdum.

The King gives currents of yeast (that is what I adjudge ale to be) to men.

Thögn fellir brim bragna
– biórr forn er that – horna.

Men’s patience is dispelled by surf (that is old beer) of horns.

Máls kann mildingr heilsu
– miödr heitir svá – veita.

The Prince knows how speech’s salvation (that is what mead is called) is to be given.

Strúgs kemr í val veiga
– vín kallak that – galli.

In the choicest of cups comes (this is what I call wine) dignity’s destruction.

In that brief lesson, Sturluson, who was eventually executed in his Iceland cellar by order of the King of Norway, showed the hopeful spin doctor one classic form of Viking verse by explaining the ethanols of the day.

He covers young frothy ale, then aged lager, honey mead and finally, the big new hit: wine.

One could presume this was the ideal order in which these things were served at feasts like Yuletide.

Warm up on the ale, grow tetchy on the lager, start talking too much on the mead, and go nuts on the wine.

As they would have encountered distillation in Byzantium by 900AD, it’s likely the Vikings had introduced alcoholic spirits to Iceland by Sturluson’s time, so his “wine” may well have been fortified, or even pure brandy.

Maybe it was the release of this deep state intelligence that displeased the distant King.

If you wanted to observe the traditional solstice feast today, you’d enter a mate’s yurt through the hole in its roof when the snow covered the door, hang a sockful of fly agarics above the fire to dry, ingest them dried or kidney-filtered, sink a few Cooper’s Ales, a few hornsful of Mismatch Lagers from Hills brewer Ewan Brewerton, then a big pot of Maxwell’s mead – warmed and spiced. Only after that lot would you address the wine.

To bring the Chrestus into it, have a wine like the one the Italians were used to making. I imagine the young son of the creator of the universe hanging about the back of the officers’ mess, watching them ferment it; sneaking a taste. Years later, when his mum whinged about him and the lads arriving at the wedding so late the wine was gone, he called the guests to bring the water pots out into the sun. Add some dried grapes from the store. Wait for the wild ferment to kick in. In those days, a wedding often lasted a week.

The Roman army wouldn’t fight without onions and wine. I can think of one former Australian prime minister who seemed inspired by this, but by Jesus, those troopers musta stank. In case they’d have to fight beyond the realms of wine culture, they’d make their own with the dried fruit they carried.

Today, such wines are called ripasso or amarone. These are made to this day in Valpolicella in northern Italy. The best South Australian examples I know are under the Koltz brand, made by Mark Day, just over the hill from me in Blewett Springs, McLaren Vale. Mark loves doing vintage in Valpolicella. His two principal McLaren Vale glories, The Wizard and The Pagan, are made from his grapes dried on racks for up to seven weeks.

So there. Just in case you can’t think of how to spend the big birthday of the world’s most famous winemaker, some inspirational background. Have a lovely day, and guarantee there are no souls left lost on the tundra.

Seek ’em out, bring ’em in, give ALL the sleigh keys to Santa, then fill everybody with good cheer … ka-chink!

A long way from the Arctic … Philip White in Kuitpo Forest. Photo: Leo Davis

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