Why Do We Drink Eggnog at Christmas?

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Yelena Bryksenkova)

Why do we drink eggnog? The question vexed me for years. Eggnog? The weird yellow Yuletide drink featuring eggs and sometimes booze? The mysterious stuff that retired people in movies swill by the fireside on frozen nights? The creamy concoction that comes in cartons where corn syrup is known to bat second or third in the ingredient lineup? A drink where 50 percent of the letters are g?

No thanks. Why would I, in this sacred season of roast pork and rainbow cookies, drink something that tastes like nothing and fills me up in four sips?

Clearly not everyone is as perplexed as I am. There seem to be eggnog families and non-eggnog families. Those who have grown up drinking eggnog are neutral and may even have a recipe or two. Those who haven’t see the drink as a curiosity (most likely, a store-bought curiosity) that distantly and vaguely belongs to holiday history and tradition.

With this attitude, with my non-eggnog roots, I had a conversation years back with a classmate from the other side. It was right before winter break. He was excited about ‘nog.

 “I can’t wait to make a batch of eggnog!” he gushed.

 I looked at him. “Really? Of all the things in the wide universe you could be doing?”

”Yeah. You’re not a fan?” he asked.


“Maybe you’ve been drinking the wrong eggnog.” 
He directed me to a few recipes, blueprints for scratch-made ‘nogs replete with fancy flourishes like fresh-grated nutmeg and well-aged bourbon. The recipe I chose called for spiced rum.

So there I stood a few days later at my kitchen counter, ingredients outspread, pitcher ready, my girlfriend reminding me that we had to get wine on the way to another friend’s holiday party because nobody was going to drink this stuff — this apothecary-sounding potion that called for 12 eggs and enough rum to end your night; this drink where 50 percent of the letters are g.
 I assured her that a wine stop was in the night’s cards, and then I cracked the first egg.

The word “eggnog” provides a keyhole glimpse into the drink’s history. My good friend the OED tells us that, across the pond in centuries past, ‘nog was “a strong variety of beer” to English drinkers around Norfolk. (The possibly related Shetlandic word “nugg” referred to “ale warmed with a hot poker.”) The word “noggin” refers to your head, but also, in places like Ireland even today, to “a small drinking vessel.”

Eggnog itself is a drink of eggs, dairy, sugar, and (historically) alcohol. The English have been mixing eggnog for several hundred years, and the drink crossed the Atlantic with the early American colonists.

That the first Americans drank eggnog isn’t surprising. The colonies were awash with rum from the English-dominated Caribbean and then, once we had soured on the English, American whiskey became the “in” drink. American farmers west of coastal centers had to sell their amber fields of grain. They often turned them into whiskey, which was easier to transport. There was so much alcohol that it was commonly consumed before noon. As young America was an agricultural country, there were lots of farms, which meant lots of dairy animals and chickens, which meant lots of milk and eggs. Eggs + milk + booze = eggnog.

Journals and diaries from back then reveal that eggnog was a Christmas tradition. What is less clear is how drink and holiday met, hit it off, and stayed together. One can guess. The ingredients for eggnog are available year-round, but could you imagine drinking a cream-based brew with the viscosity of syrup and then heading out to plow a farm in summer? It makes much more sense that colonial Americans would’ve waited until winter, for an occasion worthy of breaking out the spirits (if scarce) — for Christmas, a time when the harvest was done and there wasn’t much to do but celebrate.

Eggnog can hit at 20 percent+ ABV. The alcohol acts as a preservative. You can age eggnog for months. I picture a starving colonist shutting the door on a prairie wind in December and, his fresh food stores having dwindled, going down to the cellar for some reserved ‘nog.
 I picture my girlfriend and I at my kitchen counter, my first batch frothy, pie-spiced, spiked with the sharp bite of rum, and ready for slow drinking. And it’s pretty good — more like a light milkshake than the gloppy stuff from the carton. Not life-changing. Not earth-shaking. Not even enough to transform me into more than a once-a-year ‘nog drinker, but nice and sweet, thick and boozy, and enough to make me see a crack of the light.

Why do we drink eggnog? Maybe history. Maybe tradition. Maybe to fire the memory or to point the mind down a pleasant vector and press launch. Maybe to get full. Maybe to get drunk. Maybe for the same reason we do anything in December. And maybe, yes — maybe even for taste.