The First Annual Boston BarHopper Christmas Special

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When I was a kid, going into Boston seemed kind of like a big deal. That was where dad worked, and where the Sox and the Celtics and the Bruins played, and where the governor lived. I grew up about 20 miles north of Boston. That’s not prohibitively far from the city, but going there still felt like a special occasion. Everything in Boston just seemed bigger, faster, more special, more important. The tall buildings, the fast pace, the busy subway, the constant barrage of sounds – those things are fascinating to a child.

So you can probably imagine – actually, some of you might remember – how exhilarating it was, as a kid, to visit Boston during the holiday season. I vividly recall those occasions when my family and I would head into town for a day of Christmas shopping, and what a feast it was for the senses.

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The city, already imbued with a sense of majesty, seemed suddenly and impossibly grander. The Christmas spirit was in the air – you could see it in the huge department stores in Downtown Crossing and the small shops on Charles Street. You could hear it in the ever-present Christmas music in the stores or outside, played by street musicians or the occasional vocal group, decked out in gay apparel. You could smell it when you walked by a food vendor selling hot treats on a bitterly cold day. And when night fell, the lights clicked on and bathed the city in a wintry glow. The colored bulbs on the trees in Boston Common, the warm glimmer from store windows, and a skyline dotted by the illuminated windows of skyscrapers conspired to weave a tapestry of Yuletide splendor. It felt like the entire city was in full holiday swing.

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And while that sense of celebration seemed, in my young eyes, to extend to every block of Boston, no area of the city better encapsulated the magic of the season than Faneuil Hall. Just approaching it felt special – you could see lights on the horizon and hear all sorts of commotion.

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And when you got there, it was just as good as you imagined. There were impossibly tall Christmas trees, big green wreaths with red bows hanging in store windows, and holiday classics playing on loudspeakers. Ordinary trees became extraordinary when draped with white lights. When it got too cold, we’d go inside, where – behold! – the promise of a hot chocolate awaited, and the warmth would refresh us as we perused carts selling keepsakes or squeezed through the crowded, narrow hallway lined with food vendors.

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For me, all the elements of Faneuil Hall in December combined to bring Christmas alive in a manner that went beyond Santa Claus, talking snowmen, and flying reindeer. In a way, this was real-life magic. I must have cultivated an idyllic image of a Victorian-era Christmas, maybe from reading or seeing “A Christmas Carol” in my most formative years. Because something about the bricks and cobblestones of this centuries-old marketplace infused color, sound, and texture into a deeply embedded impression of a snowy night in 19th century London, passersby greeting each other as they navigated gaslit streets, arms full of brown paper packages tied up with string. I felt like I was witnessing the reenactment of a profoundly old tradition, and it was absolutely thrilling to be part of it.

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I’m all grown up now, whether I act like it or not. I still love the holiday season, but these days it means finding time for shopping, deciding on the right gifts, paying for it all, dueling for parking spots at crowded malls, coordinating travel plans, having my triumph at finishing my shopping doused when I remember at the last minute that I need something for the office party, bugging people for their addresses, mailing gifts, sending cards, coming up with holiday cocktails, and telling people what size I wear in a sweater (medium) or jeans (32/32, but keep the receipt). And that’s on top of everyday stuff, like working a full-time job, writing blog posts, and answering BBH fan mail. All while the mercury plummets to bone-chilling temperatures.

The city, where I spend 60+ hours a week, doesn’t possess quite the same holiday mystique that it held I was a kid. Sure, I still notice the decorations and hear the songs, but most of the time I’m walking to work and thinking about the day ahead, or dashing for the train, trying to get home. Always somewhere to be.

But this post isn’t about growing up and becoming jaded, with some clichéd moral about taking time to stop and smell the Christmas trees. It’s about one area of the city that, despite the passing years and my diminished ability to believe in magic, still manages to fill me with a sense of wonder.

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In some respects, it might seem odd to assign Faneuil Hall such an elevated status. Christmas is too commercial as it is, and Faneuil Hall is pretty much just a bunch of stores, few of which are interesting or unique. It’s also a five-minute walk from my office, so for me, making a trip there isn’t exactly novel. And it’s mostly tourist-driven; I seldom need a Boston sweatshirt, a stuffed lobster, or a snow globe of the State House, and I’m certainly never going to Cheers.

Yet I still get excited when I walk across Government Center and see those lights in the distance. I don’t know – maybe it’s because standing in front of that mammoth Christmas tree makes me feel tiny, but I walk into Faneuil Hall and can’t help feeling like a kid again.

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Of course, as an adult, my tastes have expanded beyond that hot chocolate I used to look forward to. So with that in mind, I took a whirl around Faneuil Hall in search of some seasonal cocktails that can warm your bones on a cold winter night, give you a boost when your holiday shopping expedition loses steam, or just serve as a reward after a long day of rockin’ around the Christmas tree.

Ames Plow Tavern has always been an underrated favorite of mine. It’s down a flight of stairs and there are no windows, making it a convenient hideaway whenever you feel the need to block out the noise and crowds. Ames Plow is a cozy basement bar that’s always a pleasure to drink in, and the Christmas lights on the back wall add a little holiday cheer. The $3 PBRs are a year-round attraction, but on a chilly night, try the spiked hot apple cider made with vanilla vodka and cinnamon schnapps. If your shopping trip needs a quick jolt, this will do the trick.

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Once you’re sufficiently recharged, walking up those stairs and reemerging into Faneuil Hall’s Yuletide radiance will make you feel festive all over again.

Upstairs from Ames Plow is that sprawling all-purpose bar, Ned Devine’s. Ned’s is all decked out for the season, and even though they don’t offer much in terms of holiday-themed cocktails, it’s a festive atmosphere for drinking a winter brew.

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When I stopped in last week, it seemed like the right time to have my first Sam Adams Winter Lager of the season. This sturdy classic with wintry spices will help fortify you against the chill outdoors.

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Despite the modern-day corporate nature of Faneuil Hall, it’s still possible to feel its sense of history. And as I said before, that’s a little easier this time of year, when the place looks like the front of a greeting card. What better occasion, then, to check out a true Boston classic – Durgin Park.

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I’m not sure whether I’d ever been to this Boston landmark; honestly, I can’t imagine going there unless I had a guest who’d never been to Massachusetts and demanded a taste of traditional New England. But the bar area, comfortable and well worn, is a very pleasant surprise, and Christmas lights add a festive air. The drink options are pretty straightforward, but they do have a cocktail that seems seasonal enough – the Johnny Apple Cider. This mix of Smirnoff Kissed Caramel vodka, sour apple schnapps, and triple sec isn’t a hot drink like the one at Ames Plow, but it still hits the spot and captures the flavors of fall and winter.

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Finally, Anthem provides for one of the classier and more upscale drinking experiences in Faneuil Hall. In terms of holiday décor, Christmas lights strung along the dark wood walls and behind the bar are festive and playful, but the candles on the bar evoke a quieter, more intimate holiday atmosphere. Anthem has several seasonal options to choose from, and I started with the elegant ginger fizz – G’Vine gin, ginger cognac, and prosecco. Dry and bubbly, the ginger flavor permeated the drink but remained soft and subtle.

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The undisputed hit of my holiday drinking tour, though, was Anthem’s mulled cider. Made with Domaine de Canton ginger cognac and hot mulled cider, topped with homemade whipped cream, this is quite possibly the most satisfying winter cocktail I’ve ever had.

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Warm, creamy, and delicious, it’s a well-conceived drink perfectly suited to a cold December night. I think I’ll stop in and see whether they’re still serving it in January. And February…

No matter how many times you’ve been there, Boston’s most famous tourist attraction is still worth a pre-Christmas visit – especially if you need something to take the edge off or simply want to toast the holidays. After all, this may be the most wonderful time of the year, but it can also be the most stressful. So swing by, enjoy the lights, and treat yourself to a cup of cheer.

Even if it’s the kind you drank when you were a kid.

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