Christmas of 1826 was snowy, cold and lonely for the cadets of West Point. Though called “men” they were really teenage boys — some as young as 17 — and they wanted to celebrate Christmas. Young Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederate States of America, was among them.
But West Point then, as it is now, was a house of order and discipline.
The military academy was under the strictest orders of sobriety that Christmas season. And being young men some took it upon themselves to challenge those orders in the name of holiday celebration. They organized, they partied — and then they got caught.
During excused absences the men of West Point would visit area taverns and drink grog — a mix of alcoholic spirits and spices whose many differing recipes came over from the Old World of England in those post-revolutionary times.
But for their clandestine Christmas celebration of 1826 they sought to make eggnog – a creamy mixture of typical grog ingredients combined with milk, cream and eggs.
Military tradition had passed down rumors of a fancy for the drink from George Washington himself, whose stiff recipe challenged even the heartiest drinker. It was the seasonal tradition of Christmas in colonial America and for these boys it was a sentimental taste of home.
Carefully they planned their party. The ingredients were brought in under cover of darkness, at varying times and by the hands of several individuals. On Christmas Eve they posted guards to look out for watchful superior officers, blackened their windows and began mixing their eggnog.
Their party proceeded unnoticed until 4:30 in the morning when the alcohol began to influence their ability to keep the noise down. By that point keeping the officers from noticing was impossible. What ensued thereafter has come to be known in legend as the Eggnog Riot.
One cadet ended up facing murder charges by the time it was said and done. Six others resigned and 19 others were court martialed. And many, including Jefferson Davis, received the punishment of being confined to quarters for more than a month.
But many, even some of those expelled from the academy, expressed no regret for their involvement in the event. It was after all Christmas. And it was, after all, only eggnog.
Eggnog was one of the most common holiday traditions of Colonial America. Before there were Christmas trees, before there was Santa Claus, and long before there was ever a national holiday called Christmas there was the annual tradition of eggnog.
Eggnog definitely has ties to old England and the time-honored tradition of wassail. Though different from wassail, which used fruits as a base, eggnog’s consistent ingredient has always been eggs. But aside from the eggs and milk or cream, eggnog of the 18th century could contain any manner of wine, beer, ale or other spirits. Spices, most notably nutmeg, were also constants.
George Washington’s recipe called for one quart of cream, one quart of milk, a dozen eggs, one pint of brandy, a half pint of rye, a quarter pint of rum and a quarter pint of sherry. He was famous, especially after the Revolutionary War, for holding festive Christmas gatherings featuring his unique brand of eggnog.
Eggnog continues to this day as a holiday tradition. Available now in grocery stores as early as mid-October eggnog is as popular as a non-alcoholic beverage as it once was in its raw form.
It has over time become one of the classic flavors of Christmas and has spawned a mini-industry of eggnog-flavored creations from cheese cake to ice cream.