Christmas beers are a long-standing tradition with Belgian brewers, and the practice of making a special brew for the holidays has quite a history in other parts of Europe and a growing appeal with American craft brewers as well.
Scandinavia's tradition of Christmas beers goes back to the Vikings, who celebrated the Winter Solstice with Jul (Yule) beers, which each household was required to brew by law. Wassailing (the predecessor to Christmas caroling) was the practice of going from house to house and singing songs in exchange for strong beers. If the beer was not strong enough, there were consequences for that house. Later on, 19th Century brewers in Britain, Germany and Belgium traditionally offered stronger beers during the holidays as a "thank you" to their loyal patrons. The Belgians, who already used non-traditional ingredients in their beers, often added fruits, herbs and spices to their holiday offerings.
Beers like Gouden Carolus Noel, Stille Nacht and Scaldis Prestige bring unique flavor profiles to the Christmas season. When Stella Artois was first introduced in 1926, it was a special Christmas beer. "Stella" means "star" - the Star of Bethlehem.
Christmas beers are less of a style than a tradition. There are hardly two alike, although most are stronger than their year-round counterparts and often have some combination of fruits, spices or flavorings added to give them a seasonal festiveness.
Another type of Belgian holiday beer that goes well at Christmas or New Years is Biere Brut or Champagne beer. These are very pale beers that resemble fine champagnes and are made using traditional champagne processes. Deus and Malheur are the two most well-known names, and Infinium - a collaboration between Samuel Adams and Weihenstephan - is also excellent.
There are lots of great Christmas beers out there and no holiday season is complete without enjoying a few of them on these cold winter nights or at your holiday table. Raise a toast to the season!