Once snow has settled on Yosemite Valley, a flurry of activity transforms the Ahwahnee Hotel into a 17th century manor for the Bracebridge Dinner.
You have to think in technicolor to imagine the visual opulence, pageantry and 7-course feast of one of America’s most enduring Yuletime traditions. More than 60 professional singers and court characters re-enact the Christmas feast at Bracebridge Hall described in Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book (1819).
From the moment heraldic trumpets announce the arrival of Lord Merrick and his family, you are swept up in what producer Andrea Fulton calls, “a Christmas that never was, but that lives on in everybody’s hearts.”
The dining room oozes Elizabethan ambience. Holiday decorations, many from the 1920s productions, swathe every corner. Roundels hang in the cathedral windows and the “stained glass” window behind the head table is finely painted parchment paper, carefully preserved through the years.
Andrea Fulton has produced and directed the annual production of The Bracebridge Dinner since 1979, having joined the cast as a villager at age five. Six decades later, she plays the housekeeper Augusta Billingsly who supervises the household, interacts with guests and—as the chorus sings—leads the procession of each course of food to the head table for the squire to taste. The feast ends with plum pudding and wassail, recalled by Washington Irving:
“The butler brought in a huge silver vessel of rare and curious workmanship, which he placed before the Squire. The old gentleman’s whole countenance beamed with a serene look of indwelling delight, as he stirred this mighty bowl. Having raised it to his lips, with a hearty wish of a merry Christmas to all present, he sent it brimming round the board, for every one to follow his example, pronouncing it ‘the ancient fountain of good feeling, where all hearts met together.’”
The best way to experience the dinner is to sequester yourself in the lodge for two nights. The Ahwahnee, a magical place any time of the year, reaches a peak of serenity in winter. The original big oak tables, secretaries, and wrought iron chandeliers are still found in the Great Lounge. Original rugs hang on the hotel’s walls, unique and individual Native American designs still adorn each guest room door.
The dinner is also one of America’s most sought-after tickets. The 2012 Bracebridge performances take place on December 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24 and 25. One and two-night lodging packages are available at The Ahwahnee (Majestic), Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, and the Wawona Hotel. Reservations. 801.559.4903. Tickets online at Yosemite Park.
—Donna Peck. Photography Lani Spicer. Updated December 1, 2016.