December 14, 2009

A Drunken Christmas Part II, with Tragedy and a Recipe



Strangely, I found another piece of lore about Christmas that involves drunken sailors. It's tragic, but oddly also includes a recipe.

On Christmas night 1778, a powerful snowstorm struck Massachusetts. Plymouth was particularly hard hit, and the ships at anchor there had to make a hard decision: stay in Plymouth Harbor and possibly get wrecked ashore, or try to ride out the storm in the open sea where the weather might be even worse. James Magee, the captain of a ship called the General Arnold, decided to stay in Plymouth Harbor.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong decision. The ship was driven onto a sand flat and broken in two by the violent storm.

Captain Magee and his 105 men were trapped on the flat for more than four days, buffeted by winds and drenched by freezing waves. He urged his men to fill their boots with brandy to prevent their feet from freezing. The crew had another idea - they used the brandy to fill their bellies instead.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong decision. Eighty-three of the crew members froze to death. Many others were severely crippled.

Captain Magee wasn't among them. He went on to become a prosperous merchant, eventually buying the Shirley-Eustis House , the former Massachusetts governor's house in Roxbury. He never forgot that deadly Christmas night in Plymouth Harbor, though, and would host a Christmas party every year for invite the surviving crew members and the widows and children of those who had perished.

According Amy Whorf McGuiggan's Christmas in New England (where I found this story), the Shirley-Eustis House museum used to recreate Captain Magee's party each December, serving authentic food and beverages from the 18th century. So, for a little holiday cheer after a melancholy story, here is the recipe McGuiggan provides for Captain Magee's Eighteenth-Century Fish House Punch*. Consume this in moderation!

Mix together the juice of 12 lemons (1 1/2 cups) and several spoonfuls powdered sugar.
Add 1 1/2 quarts brandy
1 pint peach brandy
1 pint rum
1 quart carbonated water
1 quart brewed tea
Add more tea, lemon juice, or water to taste.
Stir well and add slices of oranges.
Serves 18.

*Apparently, Fish House Punch was first invented in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s.

P.S. - The Boston Globe today printed a piece by Stephen Nissenbaum, the author of The Battle for Christmas, which I've mentioned before. In it, he describes what Christmas was like in old New England. The comments posted online about his article are surprising - I guess people don't like hearing their ancestors were drunken, raucous and sometimes irreligious.

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