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  • Writer's pictureOmar Gutierrez

St. John, Wine, and Catholic Culture

Christians have been celebrating the feast of St. John the Evangelist on December 27th at least as far back as the 400s. According to St. Epiphanius, John died in the year 100 at the ripe old age of 94. And of the eleven apostles that were with Jesus from the beginning and remained faithful, St. John is the only one of them not to have died from martyrdom.

He is of course also known as one of the "sons of thunder" a nickname given to him and his brother James by the apostles - so St. Mark tells us. John and James were sons of Zebedee, a fisherman out of the town of Caperaum on the Sea of Galilee. The father and his two boys were business partners with Simon Peter and Andrew, and John has always been considered the youngest of the apostles.

According to St. John, it was he who placed his head on the chest of Our Lord during the Last Supper, and he was the only one of the aposltes to stay with Jesus until the very end, choosing not to flee the Pharisees and the Romans but to stand at the foot of the cross, eventually taking over care of the Blessed Virgin Mary until she passed from this life. On Easter morning, after St. Mary Magdalene came and found the apostles to tell them that Jesus' body was missing, it was St. John who outran the older and slower St. Peter to get to the empty tomb. He waited for Peter, however, out of respect, and entered after him to discover the incredible news of the resurrection.

We know that along with the other apostles, he was there for the Pentecost, and that he stayed in Jerusalem for a time after this to help lead the Church there being referred to by St. Paul as "one of the pillars of the Church." He would help lead many now-famous souls into the Church including St. Polycarp and St. Ignatius of Antioch. Eventually, he traveled to Ephesus where he lived with Mary. Afterwards, he survived a persecution of Christians by the Emperor Domitian, was exhiled to the island of Patmos, and then returned to Ephesus where he is said to have died and where his tomb exists. Before that death, he wrote the fourth Gospel, which is why he is very often portrayed with a book and a plume/pen and sometimes with an eagle, as that is the symble for his Gospel. Why the eagle? St. John's Jesus is regularly telling his listeners to consider not just the things of this earth but the transcendent things, the heavenly things. St. John, like the far-seeing eyes of an eagle, sees the truths of Jesus' message in a way far beyond and above that of the others evangelists.

There are many legends associated with the other details of St. John's life. To wit, at times he is pictured pointing to or holding a chalice with a dragon rising out of it. The image comes from a story that in Ephesus the high priest of the Greek god Diana, a man named Aristodemus, challenged John to drink a cup of poison. John did so and suffered no harm. Aristodemus converted to Christianity on the spot. To represent this, then, John the young man is pictured with a cup sometimes with a serpent slithering out of it or a dragon hovering over it representing the poison.

Some say that this story was then the inspiration for what was later called the poculum caritatis or the "loving-cup" or "grace-cup" or, in England, the "wassail-bowl." You see, across Europe there arose over the centuries a Christmas tradition of mixing a bowl of wine or ale or cider with many spices on December 27th, St. John's feast day, in order to recall this story. Different traditions had different mixtures. In Old English the mixture came to be known as waes hael, which means "be well", which is what one would say as they present the bowl to a friend. The wassail bowl would be processed from house to house, while one wished to their neighbor's good health and sung carols to the Christ child. This was the start, so it is said, of the tradition of Christmas caroling and the tradition of toasting to one's health.  

Today some still called it wassail. Some call it mulled wine. Scandinavians call it Glögg. Germans call it Johannis-Minne, literally "John-love" (oh and minne is Old German word for "love" which is no longer used, but that's another story). No matter what you call it, here's a recipe for the drink that is supposed to secure health to good Christians who remember St. John and who wish to imbibe responsibly.  

1 bottle (750 ml) of any fruit-forward, favorite, red wine

12 oz ruby port (roughly half a bottle)

6 oz. cognac or brandy of your choice

4 whole green cardemom pods - just cracked open not crushed

8 whole cloves

2 cinnamon sticks

rind of half an orange (4 swaths)

½ cup Demerara sugar 

¼ cup raisins 

  • Combine the first three ingredients in a pot and warm them on a stove, stirring occasionally. Do not boil. 

  • While it's warming, place the spices in a muslin pouch or wrap them in cheese cloth tied into a pouch. You might have to crack the cinnamon sticks in half.

  • Once wine is warm, pour in sugar. 

  • Once sugar is dissolved, add spice pouch and let steep for 20 minutes.

  • After 20 minutes and off heat, add raisins

  • Let sit until it comes to room temperature - about an hour

  • Remove spice pouch, and then heat up to desired temp for serving. 

  • Toast good health to friends and neighbors.

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