When I was a child, I had no interest in the mysteries of the adult world – except one.
Every December, when chilly winds, chapped lips, and runny noses threatened to dampen even the brightest holiday spirits, my family would navigate the icy streets to an annual holiday party hosted by our friends, the Jensens.
Walking into the Jensens’ Christmas party is like walking into Christmas storybook. Warm air, almost golden in quality, wraps you up as you slam the door on the cold behind you. The dining room table, laden with fragrant cheeses, chocolate-dipped shortbread, and smoked salmon spread, fills the air with goodness.
But the most enticing scent always comes from the kitchen.
When I was younger, I’d watch my parents disappear into that small green room. Sometimes they wouldn’t reemerge for a while, but not seeing a kid in sight, I assumed that theirs was a secret, grown-ups only club. I didn’t go after them, but waited for them to return, holding steaming mugs of a purple-red liquid bursting with whiffs of cardamom. Season after season, I sat on the couch with fizzy (boring) ginger ale, waiting for the day I’d be invited in to share that special kind of Christmas cheer.
The source of the kitchen magic at the Jensen’s Christmas party is a drink called glögg: a warm, spiced wine of Scandinavian origin.
Though glögg is now enjoyed by many holiday revelers, Scandinavian or otherwise, it has roots as a social drink for the members of 16th century Swedish and Danish aristocracy. It’s made with red wine and spices -- cinnamon, cardamom, orange peel, and cloves -- which are warmed together with raisins and almonds.
These ingredients would not have been available to the rural farmers of Scandinavia when the first references to glögg were being recorded, according to Tova Brandt, curator of Danish-American culture at the Museum of Danish America in Elk Horn, Iowa. It would have been for the upper class, who had access to imports.
Imported wine often had to travel long distances to reach Scandinavia, increasing the chances it would go bad by the time it reached its destination. But if it was bought and paid for, Brandt says, the best option would be to add lots of spice to make it taste good. This also gave the drink a reputation for good health, as most medicines incorporated herbs and spices.
“Every favorite thing from the Scandinavian spice cabinet gets put in that beverage,” Brandt says.
Full of exotic ingredients and served warm on chilly winter nights, glögg became the perfect, special party drink to serve up during the holidays. “It came together as a practical, flavorful, and seasonal beverage.”
Glögg moved to the United States with immigrants, but not right away. Many of those who settled in the Midwest were members of the working class, which meant they didn’t traditionally make glögg. But as following generations lost their direct ties to the homeland, or married immigrants who weren’t from their region, their national identities became more general, and people became more open to adopting all things Scandinavian as their own.
The recipe started to look as varied as the people who drank it, with sherry, vodka, rum, whiskey, ginger, and sugar appearing in all combinations along with the wine, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, raisins and almonds. One version from a 1974 Sunset Cookbook offers a hot take -- literally -- on the standard recipe, with directions for serving glögg that’s on fire.
Brandt says the drink, with its similarities to the British wassail and German gluhwein, may have also made it easier to connect with other immigrants, leading to its wide-scale adoption as a social drink. Now, glögg has come to primarily serve that purpose of bringing families and friends together over something special.
The Jensen Christmas party will happen again this year, same as always. The tree will still be beautiful. The food will taste delicious; the friends will be open-armed.
The only thing different from years past is that I will be toasting it all with a hot mug of glögg, chasing away my budding cold and the chill in my fingers as I welcome the good cheer.