THERE'S something traditionally festive about a punch bowl or a special holiday drink this time of year. It can be a sparkling fruit juice combination served before dinner, a brunch punch that's a spicy eye-opener, or a hot drink by the fireside. For a change, you might serve a custard eggnog as dessert. And for guests and friends who come in from the cold, you'll want a warming wassail, hot chocolate, or mulled cider.
The new trend towards non-alcoholic drinks means stocking up on sparkling water, fruit juices, and plenty of ice. Flavor and freshness are two basic requirements, and the drinks should taste good and be fresh and sparkling or warm and full of flavor. Always use the freshest possible ingredients. You'll notice the difference. Orange juice from a concentrate may taste fine - but freshly squeezed juice will taste even better.
Ice is crucial to well-made cold drinks. Be sure to have plenty. Make ice in your freezer several days before a big party, using clear, fresh water. If you're planning to serve only one type of drink, prepare some in advance and fill your ice cube trays with it. Ice cubes made from frozen punch, for example, won't dilute the flavor when they melt.
If the first rule for a big party is not to run out of ice, the second is not to run out of beverages. Be sure to stock up on carbonated drinks and juices. Unopened bottles will keep indefinitely and frozen juices can be stored and used later.
This holiday punch recipe is from Dorothy Crouch's book ``Entertaining Without Alcohol'' (Acropolis Books, $14.95). Holiday Punch 16 cups water 16 cups sugar 4 cups peach or apricot nectar 2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice 1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice 8 quarts club soda 3 quarts club soda, frozen into cubes 4 quarts fresh or frozen strawberries, without sugar
Make a simple syrup by boiling water and sugar together, taking care to wash down sides of pan so no crystals remain. Boil mixture 5 minutes until it forms a sugar syrup. Cool and set aside.
Pour 3 quarts club soda into ice cube trays to freeze.
Combine peach, orange, and lemon juices in your largest bowl or pot. Add sugar syrup to juices, slowly, until you taste a very strong, sweet-sour flavor. This is a punch base and needs to be strong, as it will be cut later by adding club soda. Stop adding sugar syrup when mixture has a sharp lemony undertaste. Set aside sugar syrup for later use. Pour base mixture into quart bottles or large containers and refrigerate. This can be done the day before the party.
To serve, pour 1 quart of the base mixture into the punch bowl, add a generous amount of ice, and fill the bowl with club soda or seltzer - about a bottle and a half to 2 bottles for each quart of base mixture. Float strawberries on the punch, adding more as more liquid is added to the bowl. Serves 30 to 40 guests for an entire evening. Wassail 1 gallon apple cider 2 teaspoons whole allspice 2 teaspoons whole cloves 2 3-inch cinnamon sticks 1/3 cup sugar 2 cups cranberry juice 1 teaspoon bitters Orange slices, studded with cloves
Heat cider, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, sugar, and cranberry juice to boiling; reduce heat.
Cover and simmer 15 minutes. Strain and pour into heat-proof bowl. Float orange slices.
Serves 32, about 1/2 cup each. Mistletoe Punch 1 6-ounce can frozen lemonade concentrate, thawed 1 6-ounce can frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed 6 cups water 1/2 cup grenadine syrup 1 quart ginger ale, chilled Garnish: wafer-thin lemon slices and maraschino cherries
Combine all ingredients, except last two listed, in a punch bowl. Just before serving, add some ice cubes and stir in the ginger ale. Put a lemon slice and cherry in each punch cup. Serves 30 punch cups.
This recipe is from ``The New Mixers' Guide to Low-Alcoholic and Nonalcoholic Drinks'' by Sheila Buff and Judi Olstein, (HPBooks, $9.95). Yuletime Cider 1/4 cup half-and-half 1 egg 1/2 teaspoon powdered sugar 1/2 cup crushed ice 3/4 cup apple cider Freshly grated nutmeg
Combine half-and-half, egg, and sugar in shaker with crushed ice. Shake vigorously and strain into glass. Add cider and sprinkle with nutmeg. Serves 1.
Here are two recipes from a small, attractive recipe book called ``What'll You Have?'' by Cynthia Parsons, editor, handwritten by Sharon K. Malloy (The Vermont Schoolhouse Press, $5; for information write PO Box 516, Chester, VT 05143).
Excellent and unusual are special lists of suggestions for shopping wisely, clarifying meanings of label words such as ``cocktail,'' ``drink,'' ``juice,'' and giving best uses of canned, frozen or fresh beverages as well as seltzers, club soda, tonic water, and ginger ale.
Each drink has a suggested menu to go with it. Apricot-Apple Mixer 6 cups apple juice 2 cups apricot nectar 1 stick cinnamon 6 cooked apricot halves, optional
Cold: Mix juice and nectar well.
Serve with apricot-chunk ice cubes. Make by placing a small piece of apricot in each tray section; fill with water and freeze.
Hot: Place juice and nectar and cinnamon stick in saucepan. Heat but do not boil. Remove cinnamon and pour into heated mugs. Makes 8 mug-sized servings or fills 16 punch cups.
Lunch menu: Coleslaw and baked potatoes with toppings.
This is a fast punch for 30 which goes especially well with those holiday fruits, cookies, and candies. Mexican Cocoa 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 cups boiling water 2 quarts scalded milk 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 2 teaspoons cinnamon Cinnamon-sugar or grated chocolate
Melt chocolate in large double boiler. Slowly add sugar and salt. Then slowly add boiling water and stir until well blended. Add scalded milk and beat well with wire whisk for 1 minute.
Add vanilla and cinnamon. Beat again until frothy.
Sprinkle top with cinnamon-sugar or a few grated chocolate flakes.
Brunch menu: Fresh fruit cup, Eggs Florentine, Broccoli Au Gratin, and pastries.