The clinking of crystal punch glasses once heralded momentous events: a betrothal, a birth, a graduation, a law degree or the arrival of the New Year. To dip into the immense crystal or silver punch bowl was to partake full force in a celebration of tradition, elegance or holiday cheer.

In today's world of trendy cocktails and wine cellars, caterers rarely receive requests to serve punch, and some hosts scoff at the mere mention of it. Yet punch, in any of its forms, still confers importance on an event as a new generation of punch drinkers learns to appreciate it for its other assets. It can be thrown together very quickly and conveniently and, for the most part, be left unattended, thus relieving the host or hostess from the burden of mixing cocktails or pouring wine all evening (and deciding which wines to pour).

More practically, punch is easy on the pocketbook and tends to be lower in alcohol content than mixed drinks (though everyone has a story about the time Aunt Sally got tipsy from spiked cider).

Punch isn't necessarily experiencing a resurgence, since it never really went "away." It appears, to the contrary, to be impervious to Father Time. In India, it was custom to sip a concoction with five ingredients. The British eventually borrowed the concept and began referring to any beverage with the requisite number and kind of ingredients as "punch," a variation of panch (Hindi for five).

From then on, the saga of punch is quite whimsical. In colonial Virginia, the prevailing sentiment was "[a]lthough much was said in praise of wine, more was said of punch," we are informed by "The Williamsburg Cookbook" (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1988). Civil War era punches were plentiful; they tended to be either a Champagne, cognac and citrus version that remains popular to this day, a whiskey punch or a fruit punch of seemingly endless variety.

"The Original Fannie Farmer Cookbook" (Hugh Lauter Levin, 1896) offered readers three versions of eggnog as well as a comparable beverage known as Milk Punch and a slew of fruit punches. Hundreds of family recipes have been immortalized in church and Junior League cookbooks.

By the early 1900s, drinking punch was perceived as highbrow, a distinction that did not prevent many a punch from containing unconscionable amounts of alcohol.

In Marietta Minnigerode Andrews's "My Studio Window: Sketches of the Pageant of Washington Life," first published by E.P. Dutton in 1928, narrator Kate Field refers to a punch concocted by her husband every Wednesday afternoon, an event that soon evolved into a social occasion, "a sort of public utility." Like most punches, it was subject to improvisation: 12 bottles of California claret (a dry red wine), the juice of 12 lemons, one quart of the best Jamaican rum and a little sugar; White Rock (a brand-name tonic from that era) "to give it life" or Champagne, "if we felt unduly affluent."

When afternoon social calls became passe, "adult" punches were relegated to bridal showers and the nonalcoholic counterpart to second-grade birthday parties. Thereafter, punch gained a decidedly unpopular image. James Beard emphatically asserted in "Hors D'Oeuvres and Canapes" (originally published in 1940 and newly revised from Running Press, 1999, $14.95): "And let us once and for all boycott that strange concoction known as 'punch' and take our fruit juice straight."

Perhaps the most enduring--and enjoyable--aspect of punches is versatility. While inspired by tradition, they are limited neither by season nor social occasion but only by the imagination. Although most punches are rooted in tradition--from Scandinavian glogg to Spanish sangria--they are easy to alter, given personal preferences, time constraints and health concerns. Bitter wassail takes on a sweet twist when apple cider is used instead of sherry, and the simmering time is cut in half. Mulled wine marries well with a hefty splash of Grand Marnier. But any punch will be easy to hoist when it's time to toast the new century.

Mulled Wine

(About 16 four-ounce servings)

With its bright color, fragrant aroma and bold flavor, this version of mulled wine is a sure party favorite. Adapted from a recipe in "Christmas 101" by Rick Rodgers (Broadway, $15). Use a fruity but full-bodied red wine, such as Merlot or Zinfandel; don't go too cheap since this punch is only as good as the wine that you use.

2 (750-milliliter) bottles fruity red wine, such as Merlot

1 cup honey

2/3 cup Grand Marnier or other orange-flavored liqueur

Zest and juice from 1 orange, plus additional orange slices (for optional garnish)

12 whole cloves

12 allspice berries

2 cinnamon sticks, 3 to 4 inches, plus additional for optional garnish

4 quarter-size slices fresh ginger root, crushed

3 cardamom pods, crushed (optional)

In a large nonreactive pot over low heat, stir together the wine, honey, Grand Marnier, orange zest and juice, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, ginger and cardamom, if using. Heat, stirring occasionally, until the mulled wine is hot but not boiling, about 30 minutes. Strain and discard the solids. Pour into mugs and garnish with orange slices or cinnamon sticks, if desired. Serve warm.

Per serving: 172 calories, trace protein, 23 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 10 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Cider Wassail

(Makes 20 four-ounce servings)

In Elizabethan times, wassail referred to a combination of sherry, ale and baked apples. This version is less bitter and time-consuming but every bit as fragrant and popular as the original.

For a nonalcoholic mulled cider, substitute 3 cups cranberry juice for the ale. From Rick Rodgers's "Christmas 101" (Broadway, $15).

4 (12-ounce) bottles pale ale

4 cups apple cider

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

Zest from 1 lemon

Juice from 2 lemons

4 quarter-size pieces fresh ginger root

12 allspice berries

6 whole cloves

2 cinnamon sticks, 3 to 4 inches, plus additional for optional garnish

In a large nonreactive pot, combine the ale, cider, brown sugar, lemon zest and juice, ginger, allspice, cloves and cinnamon sticks. Heat, stirring occasionally, over low heat until hot but not boiling, about 30 minutes. Strain and discard the solids. Pour into mugs and garnish with cinnamon sticks, if desired.

Per serving: 63 calories, trace protein, 7 gm carbohydrates, 0 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 gm saturated fat, 5 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Minted Punch

(About 8 four-ounce servings)

This nonalcoholic sipper gets rave reviews, even from those who typically decline nonspiked punches. From "Heaven's Banquet" by Miriam Kasin Hospodar (Dutton, $39.95).

5 cups water

6 whole cloves

1 cinnamon stick, 3 to 4 inches

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger root

1/2 cup chopped fresh mint leaves, plus additional whole mint leaves for garnish

1/2 cup sugar

1 lemon, cut in half

In a large saucepan over medium heat, stir together the water, cloves, cinnamon stick, ginger and mint. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, until the liquid is reduced to 4 cups, about 15 minutes.

Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Remove from the heat.

Squeeze the juice from half of the lemon into the punch and mix well. Strain the punch into a chilled pitcher or punch bowl; discard the solids. Thinly slice the other lemon half and add to the punch.

Serve the punch warm or cover it tightly and chill for at least 2 hours or as long as overnight.

Per serving: 50 calories, trace protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 0 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 gm saturated fat, trace sodium, trace dietary fiber

Brandied White Wine

(Makes 6 4-ounce servings)

This sweet nectar is best when served quite chilled, preferably after dinner. Based on a recipe in Georgeanne Brennan's "Holiday Fruit" (Smithmark, $14.98).

750-milliliter bottle dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnnay

1 cup sugar

1 whole clove

Zest from 1 lemon

1/4 cup brandy

1 lemon, thinly sliced (for optional garnish)

In a large, nonreactive saucepan over medium heat, stir together the wine, sugar, clove and lemon zest. Simmer until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is heated through, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Strain the punch; discard the solids. Stir in the brandy. Set the punch aside to cool to room temperature.

Pour the punch into a large chilled pitcher, cover tightly and refrigerate for at least 2 hours but not more than 24 hours, or pack the pitcher in ice for at least 30 minutes. Pour into wine glasses and garnish with lemon slices, if desired.

Per serving: 233 calories, trace protein, 33 gm carbohydrates, 0 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 gm saturated fat, 7 mg sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber

Sangria

(Makes 6 four-ounce servings)

There are as many ways to make sangria as there are occasions to serve it. This version was brought back from Spain by Washingtonian Christy Wood, who persuaded Jose Reina, night clerk at the Hotel Clipper in Madrid, to part with his secret recipe. This is a hearty and alcoholic version; for a lighter sangria, throw in additional fruit (plums, cherries, raspberries) and a hefty splash of a carbonated beverage (seltzer or sparkling wine). You can macerate the fruit in the Cointreau and brandy for 20 or 30 minutes ahead of time for a smoother meld of flavors.

750-milliliter bottle red wine, chilled

1 tablespoon Simple Syrup (recipe follows), or to taste

Juice from 2 lemons

1 lemon, thinly sliced

1 orange, thinly sliced

About 3 tablespoons Cointreau or other orange-flavored liqueur or to taste

About 6 tablespoons brandy

Cinnamon sticks (for optional garnish)

Ice cubes

In a large chilled punch bowl, combine the red wine with the simple syrup, lemon juice, lemon and orange slices, Cointreau, brandy, cinnamon sticks and ice cubes. Mix well and serve immediately.

Per serving: 158 calories, trace protein, 8 gm carbohydrates, 0 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 gm saturated fat, 7 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Sugar Syrup

(Makes about 2 1/2 cups)

Since sugar does not dissolve easily in cold liquids, it's a good idea to keep this simple syrup on hand.

2 cups water

2 cups sugar

In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Add the sugar and cook, stirring constantly, until the sugar has dissolved, about 30 seconds. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until just slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat; set aside to cool. (May cover tightly and refrigerate for up to 3 weeks.)

Per 1-tablespoon serving: 37 calories, 0 gm protein, 10 gm carbohydrates, 0 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 gm saturated fat, trace sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber

White Wine Punch

(Makes 6 four-ounce servings)

This punch makes a refreshing aperitif or accompaniment to brunch. From "Martha Stewart's Hors D'Oeuvres" (Clarkson Potter, $35). Stewart recommends using Moscato d'Asti, a sweet Italian white wine; you may substitute another sweet (sec or demi-sec) sparkling wine.

1 small honeydew melon (may substitute cantaloupe, watermelon or 1 cup raspberries, blackberries or strawberries)

10 ounces (1 1/4 cups) sparkling wine (preferably blanc de blanc) or dry white wine

10 ounces (1 1/4 cups) Riesling

16 ounces (2 cups) Moscato d'Asti or other sparkling wine

6 red grapes, cut in half

Ice cubes

Using a melon baller or a sharp knife, scoop the melon into balls and place on a baking sheet. Transfer to the freezer and chill until frozen, 2 to 3 hours.

In a large chilled pitcher or punch bowl, pour together the wines. Add the grapes, frozen melon balls and ice cubes and serve immediately.

Per serving: 187 calories, 1 gm protein, 19 gm carbohydrates, trace fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 23 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

PUNCH PRIMER

Newcomers to punch making need to remember that improvisation is an encouraged. Here are a few additional tips:

* Always buy extra ingredients. It's not a pretty scene when the punch runs out. If there are leftovers, there will always be another occasion to make punch.

* Moderately priced wines and liqueurs are worth the money spent. Most punches are straightforward when it comes to flavors, so it pays to use quality ingredients.

* Cold punch can be served in a metal, glass or crystal punch bowl. Hot punch should be served in a metal bowl--never crystal or glass because they might crack--or kept simmering on the front burner for informal occasions. If possible, serve hot punch in a mug. When pouring hot punch into a glass cup, place a metal spoon in the cup before pouring.

* Punch bowls and cups are nice but not necessary. Improvise by using a pitcher or even a ceramic mixing bowl. Wine glasses, flutes and plastic cups can also fit the bill. Or call a party rental company and inquire about crystal, glass and/or silver punch bowls and glasses.

* For cold punches, chill the individual ingredients and the punch bowl separately prior to mixing. If the bowl is too large for the refrigerator, fill it with crushed ice for 30 minutes, then empty and add the punch.

* Make or buy plenty of ice--ice cubes, blocks or rings for the punch and crushed ice for chilling the mixers and bowls. Many people prefer ice rings or blocks to cubes, which will melt faster and tend to get scooped up and poured into the glasses, where they may overly dilute the punch.

* To minimize the weakening of the punch as the ice melts, make frozen cubes from additional nonalcoholic ingredients or similarly flavored juices instead of water.

* For festive ice, plop a cranberry, cherry, twist of orange or lemon peel, mint leaf or edible flower in the ice cube trays or ring mold prior to filling it with liquid. Some bottled waters will produce crystal clear cubes.

* Bring mirth to your punch bowl with creative ice. "Christmastime Treats" author Sara Perry (Chronicle, $14.95) suggests the following: rinse a small surgical glove (available at pharmacies), fill with a nonalcoholic component of the punch, tie the cuff of the glove and freeze. At serving time, trim the knot, peel and discard the glove; float the chilly hand in the punch bowl.

* Most chilled punches taste far better if mixed at the last minute. Add carbonated ingredients just before serving.

* When measuring wines and spirits, keep in mind that 1 ounce equals 2 tablespoons, 2 ounces equals 1/4 cup and 8 ounces equals 1 cup.

* When you need to adjust for sweetness, remember that granulated sugar does not dissolve easily in cold liquids, but sugar syrup solves the problem.

* If a recipe calls for strongly brewed tea, use additional tea rather than a longer steeping time; the latter makes tea bitter.

* For chilled eggnog that doesn't become diluted as guests slowly sip away, float pints of frozen ice cream instead of ice. Use only high-fat ice cream; low-fat versions will give your nog a runny consistency.

* For garnish, choose one flavor of the punch as an accent, such as an orange or lemon slice, a cinnamon stick, a mint leaf or a sprinkling of nutmeg.

* Serve food! Pair hearty red wine punches with hearty foods, such as blue cheese or beef skewers. Fruity punches pair well with foods that combine salty, spicy and sweet flavors--go for some element of overlap between edible and drinkable. For example, citrus-infused white wine would pair well with orange slices dipped in a white-chocolate fondue or with spiced and citrusy shrimp.

* Remember to serve plenty of nonalcoholic options.