“A merry Christmas, Bob! Said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken…I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!…”
Like a lot of Christmas revelers out there, I count A Christmas Carol as my favorite holiday story. Yet my reason for loving this Dickens tale is probably a little different than you might expect. Although I find Scrooge’s metamorphoses from Bah-humbug kill joy to jolly benefactor heartwarming, I adore his transition from gruel eater to Smoking Bishop drinker even more. In one day, old Ebenezer goes from eating only to survive — I mean, come on, gruel for dinner on Christmas Eve? — to purchasing the largest and best Christmas turkey in London. His change is so dramatic that he actually suggests imbibing a bowl of Smoking Bishop early in the day with the much abused Bob Cratchit. I find this act even more profound than when he raises Bob’s salary a moment earlier. It’s Ebenezer Scrooge’s wish to indulge in a holiday cocktail that seems the greatest evidence he has found his yuletide soul. Ah… good old converted Scrooge and his new-found love of the drink.
But what is Smoking Bishop and how did it get such an entertaining name? I did a little research and found a great clip from a Morning Edition episode in 2002 on NPR. In the piece, Neda Ulaby interviews Cedrick Dickens, Charles Dickens great-grandson, who explains that “people back in the 1800s enjoyed a whole range of ‘clerical drinks,’ and Smoking Bishop was one of these. “Pope is burgundy, Cardinal is champagne or rye, Archbishop is claret, Bishop is port, and so on,” Dickens goes on to say. I just love the English and their naming conventions.
Smoking Bishop is basically a type of warmed sangria made with port. From what I can tell, it’s a traditional Christmas drink, but I’m not sure if this happened because of the reference in A Christmas Carol, or if it was already a holiday beverage before that. Whatever the case, as a lover of sangria and A Christmas Carol, I think I’ll need to give it a try this holiday season.
The 1999 version of A Christmas Carol with Patrick Stewart is the only film version I know of where Scrooge actually calls the drink Smoking Bishop (which is how Dickens himself referred to it in the story), although as my family only watches this version (which is my daughters’ favorite) and the Alastair Sim’s Scrooge (which is my favorite — too bad he scares my kids), I’m sure there are others I’m not aware of.
In the all-time classic Alastair Sim’s version — who, as far as I’m concerned, plays the greatest Scrooge of all time — they have changed the line so Scrooge now says “a bowl of hot punch.” I wonder if they changed the line because they didn’t think anyone would know what Smoking Bishop was; whatever the case, I’ll forgive them as it’s a near perfect Christmas film otherwise.
And for your own holiday entertainment, watch the full version of Seymour Hicks in Scrooge from 1935.
To make your own bowl of smoking bishop, here’s the recipe from Ms. Ulaby’s interview
• Take six Seville oranges and bake them in a moderate oven until pale brown. If you cannot procure any bitter Seville oranges, use four regular oranges and one large grapefruit.
• Prick each of the oranges with five whole cloves, put them into a warmed ceramic or glass vessel with one-quarter pound of sugar and a bottle of red wine, cover the vessel, and leave it in a warm place for 24 hours.
• Take the oranges out of the mixture, cut in half and squeeze the juice, then pour the juice back into the wine.
• Pour the mixture into a saucepan through a sieve, add a bottle of port, heat (without boiling), and serve in warmed glasses.
• Drink the mixture, and keep Christmas well!