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Several years ago, I was interviewing the unreasonably talented and conversationally charming Cate Blanchett before her appearance at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Our interview ended with the reflexive pleasantry of asking about each other’s upcoming Christmas holiday plans.
“We are going to the Bracebridge dinner at the Ahwahnee, in Yosemite,” I blurted, to which the actor gasped, a tad befuddled, exclaiming, “Wow, that’s a lot of strange words.” I didn’t have adequate time to go into explanation, but I quickly realized it must have seemed I was slipping into some exotic tongue.
Of course, those words, though strange to much of the world, can be power words, and appetizing words, to those in the know. The Yosemite Valley is a famed natural wonder of the world (and National Park), while Ahwahnee is the Native American (Ahwahneechee) word for the area, translating to “gaping mouth.” It’s also the name of the high-end hotel that opened there in 1927.
Bracebridge, meanwhile, is a bit more complicated. Launched in 1927 and cocreated by Ansel Adams — an aspiring musician before becoming a revered photographer — the Bracebridge Dinner series shamelessly taps into antiqued, Anglophile origins (not unlike Santa Barbara’s Christmas Revels), despite being based on sketches by Brit-leaning American author Washington Irving in the early 19th century. Pricey and proudly historic, the four-ish-hour sensation is, at its core, an elegant and savory seven-course meal interwoven with an elaborate Winter Solstice pageant of music, dance, comic manners, and merry “mummery.”
The tradition returns to the Ahwahnee for several performances each December leading up to Christmas, which is where I was headed soon after speaking to Blanchett that year. This past December, a dozen years after that last Bracebridge experience, my wife, Peggy, and I returned to the scene of the sensation, where much remained blessedly the same, including the charismatic force and presence of Andrea Fulton at the center of the action. The 74-year-old Fulton, singer/actor/director and head of the Fulton Chorale, was celebrating her 40th year as director, producer, and centerpiece (in the role of Housekeeper) of a tradition led by her father, Eugene, from 1934 to 1978.
At a dinner the night before the Bracebridge, Fulton held forth at a gathering and told tales of Ansel Adams, whom she called “beard” as a child, and her earliest role in a Bracebridge, at the ripe age of 5. She also discussed plans to pass the Bracebridge production torch and legacy to others, such as young director Sarah Coykendall and veteran music director Gregory Parker, also at the table.
On the big night, all the elements came choreographically into sync, with its costumed serio-comic theatrics, innuendo-laden ribaldry, and timeless paeans to peace, unity, and nature. (Yosemite herself is the real stage backdrop to this event.) The kitchen and costumed workers filtered into the evening’s production mix, seamlessly serving between acts such treats as tangelo brined scallop, truffle rabbit confit empanada, and a supremely tender butter-roasted Brandt Ranch beef tenderloin. Plum pudding and toasts of wassail figured into the protracted finale, as if the parties on all sides of the stage, house, and kitchen were reluctant to bring about evening’s end.
Beyond the dinner itself, staying at the Ahwahnee for a couple of nights carries its own charms, including chances to lurk in one of California’s grand rustic hang zones, the hotel’s tall-ceilinged “Great Lounge.” Also advisable is a quick ski jaunt at Badger Pass (a fine place for humble skiers such as us). The meadow just outside the hotel affords stunning views of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and the other sublime granitic character actors in Yosemite’s epic “gaping mouth” expanse.
All in all, at Bracebridge, time stands still in its way, even as taste buds and other senses dance in an acutely present-tense mode. Word to the wise: Think Christmas early and make reservations now.
Packages for the 2020 Bracebridge Dinners during next Christmas season can be booked via bracebridgedinners.com.