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A Grand Tradition of Christmas : Pomp and Circumstance Is Part of Yuletime at Yosemite

December 20, 1987|MONA GABLE

This may be hard to swallow.

But possibly the most sought-after Christmas dinner in America features boar's head and peacock pie, a strolling minstrel and dancing bear. It's hosted by a stout English nobleman named Squire Bracebridge. And it all takes place in the shadow of Yosemite's magnificent Half Dome.

All right. I'll admit that some of this is make-believe. Squire Bracebridge is a fictional character, the creation of writer Washington Irving nearly 170 years ago. The bear with the pink voile tutu is really a guy in costume. The boar's head and peacock pie are only papier mache. But the part about Half Dome is true. Trust me.

This is a story about the Bracebridge dinner, a re-creation of an 18th-Century Christmas feast that's been held at the splendidly rustic Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park for more than half a century. At $100 per person, not including tax and gratuity, this three-hour Yuletide fantasy does not come cheap.

From Far and Farther

Still, expense has hardly been a deterrent. Guests have journeyed here from such far-off places as Boston, Miami and Sydney. And last year, 30,000 people requested reservations, though fewer than 10% could be accommodated at the five dinners, which begin a few days before Christmas each year.

With its medieval-style British trappings, the popularity of the Bracebridge may seem astonishing. But at the heart of its appeal is a longing for an old-fashioned Christmas.

"I started coming here with my grandmother and my dad in 1934, when it was $7.50 for the dinner," says George Hause, a Los Angeles audio technician, whose two college-age daughters have been attending the Bracebridge since they were small girls. "It's more a show, more than a dinner to us. It's a family event."

His wife, Joan, adds in a tone of amazement: "And to think all those years we were eating turkey and creamed onions and calling it Christmas!"

Like the Hauses, a small group of guests have been returning year after year.

"They don't have a family, so their friends who come to the hotel for Christmas are family," says Carl Stephens, who has decorated the Bracebridge set since 1950 and is the Ahwahnee's head gardener. Unfortunately, he notes sadly, "that group is getting smaller each year. Some of them have gone on to the Big Bracebridge."

'My Own Christmas Palace'

"It's like coming to my own Christmas palace," says Claire Bardella, an elderly San Francisco socialite. In her white fur hat and red pantsuit, she could easily be mistaken for Mrs. Santa Claus. She has been a Bracebridge regular since her mother took her to her first dinner when she was a teen-ager in the 1930s.

"I know everybody here," she says. "I go down the main aisle, stop at every table and throw my arms around everybody. There's no place like it in the world."

Judging by one Bracebridge ceremony, she may be right.

The Bracebridge is based on a story by Washington Irving about Squire Bracebridge, an English baron who treated family, nobility, and humble villagers to a lavish feast each Christmas at his sprawling Yorkshire manor, Bracebridge Hall. The Ahwahnee's dining room may not be a baronial hall, but you'd hardly know it by the oohs and aahs of the well-heeled crowd.

"Look at that window!" sighed one woman filing into dinner, as she saw the lofty stained-glass panel of the Virgin Mary and Child. "It's almost like going down the aisle to get married."

The ceremony begins with the arrival of about 20 female singers clad in jewel-toned Renaissance gowns. Next comes the Squire and his entourage--the parson, the jester and a group of male singers--who smile and wave as they march down the center aisle. Taking his place at a huge oaken banquet table on a stage, the Squire proclaims: "Hail to Bracebridge Hall!"

In Old English

Speaking in Old English, the Parson, played by British actor Geoffrey Lardner, announces the order of the feast: "Hail the boar's head comes on high!" Courses are then whisked down the aisle on the shoulders of men in Tudor dress and presented to the squire, who approves them before they're served: "With feathers spread, and head held high . . . serve the peacock, and I'm guessing, 'tis replete with spicy dressing!"

Guests don't really get served peacock pie, of course, or any of the other fanciful entrees on this symbolic menu. An impressive parade of waiters swiftly trot out from the kitchen with the real stuff--filet of sole, poultry souffle and roast beef.

But some in the sophisticated crowd buy the illusion anyway.

"I thought it was a real fish!" exclaimed Cornelia Hoppe, an interior designer from San Francisco, as four lackeys carrying the first course--a huge papier mache fish--swept past her table.

A Dancing Bear

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