Half Dome dims early in the winter light. The incandescent lamps of the Ahwahnee Hotel glimmer through the incense cedars, summoning the 332 grateful souls who have won the privilege of paying $215 apiece (beverages not included) for a seat at the Bracebridge Dinner, a seven-decade tradition in Yosemite National Park.
We are to begin at 4:15 on this 22nd day of December. There will be a second dinner later tonight, another on Christmas Eve, and two on Christmas Day. More than 15,000 supplicants were in the drawing this year, making the odds about nine to one against getting in.
The Bracebridge Dinner re-creates an English Christmas feast described in Washington Irving's The Sketch Book. Before its publication, in 1820, Americans didn't celebrate Christmas with much fanfare. After (and at least in part because of) the Bracebridge stories, the notion of an English Yuletide, full of carols, feasting, and merriment, became the American ideal.
Irving's vision was of an older, purer England, roughly 18th century with a little 17th thrown in. His hero, Squire Bracebridge, modeled his Christmas on an even earlier, less specific time. "Different centuries were figuring at cross hands...," wrote Irving of the dancing. "The dark ages were cutting pirouettes…Queen Bess jiggling merrily down the middle, through a line of succeeding generations."
The contemporary Bracebridge Dinner also reimagines a prior incarnation—that of the late 1920s, when the photographer Ansel Adams directed the boisterous soirées of food, song, wine (plenty, to judge from the photographs), and supremely goofy pageantry. What we are about to experience today will be, therefore, an imagining of an imagining of an imagining of an imagining.
We order our liquid refreshment ahead of time in the Mural Room, choosing our wine from a hefty leather-bound list, on which not a few bottles bear three-figure prices. Guests mill up and down the halls in black tie and ball gowns, goggling at the splendiferous decorations or getting their photographs taken à la senior prom.
The menu makes no attempt to be antiquarian, but Bob Anderson (who was chef at the Ahwahnee for nine years before leaving in 2001) does derive each dish from a Bracebridge source. When a trumpet blast splits the air, the first course, "The Relish", is already in place—a neat little savory tart of vidalia onion and parma ham.
Our table is a pretty sedate group—unlikely, I think, to violate the Bracebridge Customs, sternly enumerated on a card provided to all, e.g.: "Undignified actions…such as shouting, standing or gesturing at the arrival of the various food courses, do not fit the occasion and meet with The Squire's displeasure."
A tenor in a red velvet cap and tights—more cinquecento Florence than English country house, if you ask me—proceeds down the aisle intoning, a capella, "Let all mortal flesh keep Silence,/And with fear and trembling stand./Ponder nothing earthly minded.…" More Florentines march by, singing "Alleluia". The Squire's Housekeeper enters in a circle of blinding white light. She is wearing a spectacular sort of Arthurian costume, all black, with two little cones on top of her head. The Housekeeper is played by Andrea Fulton, who is also producer, director, writer, composer, hirer, firer, administrator, and choral conductor for the Bracebridge Dinner. This is her 50th year in the pageant. She started at the age of 5.
The Squire, a dead ringer for Henry VIII, presents himself, with his Lady Wife, his Good Mother, their daughter, a Jester, a Parson, and other richly costumed head-table sorts. Booms the Squire, "My lords and ladies, honored guests/Upon whom Christmas blessings rest.../I bid ye hail to Bracebridge Hall!"
Meanwhile, back in the cavernous kitchen—7,000 square feet, with ceilings 32 feet high—332 soup bowls are heating in a long row of ovens. Vats of puréed sweet potato soup are bubbling on the stovetops as a platoon of cooks assembles at the ranges. The waiters jostle their way into place. Ladles dip, swing, and pour. Each filled bowl gets a crimson squiggle of cranberry oil. The few slop-overs are instantly tidied. Trays are shouldered. The doors fly open, and the waiters stream through in close formation, the first to emerge heading to the farthest reaches of the hall. No collisions, no falls, no spills. Three hundred and thirty-two bowls of soup, every last one hot.