WHAT WOULD Santa drink?

Listen, kids, contrary to the tales Mom and Dad told you, Father Christmas did not get that round belly and red nose from gulping down glasses of skim milk. Not to destroy your innocent visions of sugar plums and candy canes, but when it comes to treats on a long winter's night, if it's all the same to you, Santa Claus would rather have a beer.

Sacrilege, you say? The very symbol of childhood innocence guzzling alcohol? What's next, Frosty the Snowman doing Jell-O shots?

In fact, from the very beginning, Santa Claus was a man of drink.

His alter ego is Nicholas of Myra, a fourth-century Turkish do-gooder who was venerated as St. Nicholas, the ancient patron of assorted riffraff, including prostitutes, lawyers and, yes, brewers.

St. Nick eventually morphed into Santa Claus, the fat, jolly, pipe-smoking elf popularized by Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Shortly after Thomas Nast illustrated Santa's image for Harpers Weekly in 1863, advertisers began using him to shill everything, from shoes to cigars to, yes, suds.

In 1900, one magazine advertisement proclaimed, "Wherever children look for Santa Claus, Schlitz beer is known as the standard." Around the same time, Consumers Brewing assured drinkers in newspaper ads that, while "Santa Claus himself is reluctant to give away our beer . . . we have plenty to go 'round."

And so it went, from the Clydesdales pulling a sleigh full of Budweiser to Spuds Mackenzie dressed in a red Santa suit.

Not surprisingly, nannies and prohibitionists condemned those who suggested that Santa (a legal adult) had a taste for intoxicants.

In the 1930s, following the Prohibition, the Women's Christian Temperance Union campaigned to outlaw the use of his red-suited image in booze ads. One leader complained before Congress that "Santa Claus, patron saint of children during the holiday season, was pictured loaded down with beer bottles, drinking cocktails, serving as bartender . . . "

Some 30 states ultimately enacted laws banning Santa from beer ads. It was those rules that the importers of Santa's Butt Winter Porter ran into a couple of years ago, when authorities in New England sought to ban sales of the bottles.

"Undignified and improper" was the way Maine state liquor officials described the cartoon of Santa dangling precariously over an open fire on the label of Warm Welcome Nut Browned Ale.

Drying out Santa, however, has always been a losing cause thanks to the eternal connection between Christmas and beer.

Celebrating the Solstice

The December holiday began well before the birth the Christ, with ancient drinking celebrations to mark the winter solstice. To early man, the sun was God, and the day when it sat lowest in the sky signaled the start of a new cycle of life. The harvest was complete, the cold months ahead. The ale was plentiful, so the festivals began.

The Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, the Greeks, the Scandinavians - they all bowed to the winter solstice. The pagans marked the event with their best food and strongest drink at Saturnalia, in honor of the god of harvest Saturn, from Dec. 17-25.

In the fourth century, as the Western World became Christian, Pope Julius I would name the last day of the fest, Dec. 25, as the official date of Christ's birth. Many historians believe the date was selected so that pagans, forced to bow to a new religion, could keep their annual festival.

The winter party never stopped.

By the Middle Ages, Christmas would be celebrated by Trappist monks raising goblets of their finest, strongest beer. Abstain from alcohol on this holy day? In the 12th century, no less than Francis of Assisi scoffed at the idea.

In Norway, farmers were required to brew a special Christmas beer, known as juleøl. Under law, the batch had to be made with as much grain as the combined weight of the farmer and his wife, or else they risked expulsion from their property.

The tradition of special drink for this special day only grew. Beginning in the 1600s, singing revelers throughout Europe would march from door to door with cup in hand, in search of bowls filled with spiced ale - wassail. One popular ditty opened:

Wisselton, wasselton, who lives here?

We've come to taste your Christmas beer.

The pious objected to the drunken traditions. In 1659, the stiff-collars who ran the Massachusetts Bay Colony - complaining of "Compotations, Interludes and Revellings" - banned Christmas.

It wouldn't last.

Throughout the Revolution, American patriots would celebrate the holiday with "a right strong Christmas beer." And in the next century, when Santa Claus evolved as the symbol of Christmas, he was frequently portrayed with a drink in hand.

Milk and cookies? Bah humbug! As Goebel Beer urged in 1910: "Drink deep of the brew that restores one's faith in Santa Claus."

It's a refrain that was revived this season in Canada, when Labatt's promoted its non-alcoholic beer by urging kiddies to "Leave one out for Santa. He's driving."

Santa's brand?

Over the years, scores of breweries would claim to make Santa's favorite.

"Join Mr. Claus (who has a fond regard for the best things in life) in drinking tangy, foamy and delicious Point Special," the Wisconsin brewery advised in one newspaper advertisement.

New Yorkers countered: "The very best he ever tasted is what Santa Claus says about Koch's beer, and no one can deny that he knows."

In fact, we can only really guess his favorite brand.

Is Santa a hophead? Sierra Nevada Celebration boasts the classic aroma of Cascades hops. Geary's Winter Ale uses British Fuggles. Rogue Santa's Private Reserve adds a variety known by the brewery as "Rudolph."

Does he favor spice? The classic is Anchor Our Special Ale, made with a different, secret variety of herbs and spices every year. Bethlehem Brew Works' Rude Elf's Reserve is made with cinnamon, sweet gale, cloves, coriander, nutmeg and allspice.

How about rich, dark malt? The Bruery's Two Turtle Doves is potent with a nutty chocolate finish.

High alcohol? Port Brewing's Santa's Little Helper will raise his spirits with 10.5 percent alcohol by volume. Doggy Claws from Hair of the Dog is a barley wine that scratches 11.5 percent.

As Santa circles the globe on Christmas Eve, he'll find something brewed in his honor in nearly every country. Belgium offers Pere Noel and Kerst Pater ("Father Christmas" in French and Dutch, respectively). From England, there's Very Bad Elf; from Germany, he'd find his own image on bottles of Monchshof Weihnachtsbier.

In Norway, he'd sip God Jul; in Mexico, it would be Noche Buena. Either way, it's the holiday way of saying "good night."

So, which would Santa drink?

I thought I might get the answer a few years ago, on St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6. That's when the Schloss Eggenberg brewery in Austria brews its renowned Samichlaus, a strong (14 percent alcohol), brandylike triple bock whose name is the Swiss-German translation of Santa Claus. The beer is aged for 10 months before its release to beer fans around the world.

Both Santa and I were in attendance at a special mass held inside the brewery's chapel to celebrate the brewing - the perfect opportunity to interview Claus himself.

But the fat boy was too busy sipping samples and, despite my best efforts, I couldn't get a definitive answer.

"Like we say at the North Pole," he replied when I asked his favorite. "I'm making a list."

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears Fridays in the Daily News. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send e-mail to joesixpack@phillynews.com.