Christmas pudding, known also Plum pudding, or simply “pud” is a type of pudding traditionally served as end of the Christmas dinner in the UK, Ireland and in other countries where it has been brought by Irish and British immigrants. It has its origins in medieval England, and despite the name, it contains no actual plums. Its name come from the pre-Victorian use of the word “plums” as a term for raisins.
Many households have their own recipes for Christmas pudding, some handed down through families for generations, but what we think of as Christmas Pudding, is not what it was originally like.
It originated as a 14th century porridge called “frumenty”, a cracked wheat boiled in milk and was eaten all year round, that was made of beef and mutton. But for Christmas people added dried fruit like raisins, currants, and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger which were all very expensive. This was more like a soup and was eaten as a fasting meal in preparation for the Christmas festivities.
By 1595, frumenty was slowly changing into a plum pudding, having been thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit and given more flavor with the addition of beer and spirits.
It became the traditional Christmas dessert around 1650, even if in 1664 the Puritans banned it as a bad custom, because they thought Christmas was wasteful and that it lead to lots of people eating and drinking too much.
There is a popular and wholly unsubstantiated myth that in 1714, King George I, sometimes known as “the Pudding King”, requested that plum pudding be served as part of his royal feast in his first Christmas in England.
By Victorian times, Christmas Puddings had changed into something similar to the ones that are eaten today. The cook from East Sussex Eliza Acton was the first to refer to it as “Christmas Pudding” in her bestselling 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families. The pudding “had the great merit” of not needing to be cooked in an oven, something “most lower class households did not have”.
Throughout the colonial period, the pudding was a symbol of unity throughout the British Empire and its final recipe included Australian currants, South African stoned raisins, Canadian apples, Jamaican rum, and English Beer, among other ingredients all sourced from somewhere in the Empire.
The custom of eating Christmas pudding was carried to many parts of the world by British colonists and It is a common dish also in the Republic of Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa.
Over the years, many superstitions have surrounded Christmas Puddings. One superstition says that the pudding should be made with 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and his Disciples and that every member of the family should take turns to stir the pudding with a wooden spoon from east to west, in honour of the Wise Men.
Thirteen ingredients, including many dried fruits held together by egg and suet, sometimes moistened by treacle or molasses and flavoured with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and other spices. The pudding is usually aged for a month or more, or even a year. The high alcohol content of the pudding prevents it from spoiling during this time.
In the late Victorian period a tradition grew up that Christmas puddings should be made on or immediately after the Sunday “next before Advent”, four to five weeks before Christmas.
By the 1920s the custom was established that everyone in the household (and sometimes the servants), gave the mixture a stir and made a wish while doing so.
Putting a silver coin in the pudding is another age-old custom that is said to bring luck to the person that finds it. In the UK the coin traditionally used was a silver six pence.
The tradition seems to date back to the Twelfth Night Cake which was eaten during the festivities on the Twelfth Night of Christmas (the official end of the Christmas celebrations). Originally a dried pea or bean was baked in the cake and whoever got it, was ‘king or queen’ for the night. There are records of this practice going back to the court of Edward II (early 1300s). The bean was also sometimes a silver ring of small crown, a tiny wishbone (to bring good luck), a silver thimble (for thrift), or an anchor (to symbolise safe harbour).
Once turned out of its basin, decorated with holly, doused usually in brandy (or occasionally rum), and flamed (or “fired”), the pudding is traditionally brought to the table ceremoniously, and greeted with a round of applause. In 1843, Charles Dickens describes the scene in A Christmas Carol:
“Mrs Cratchit left the room alone – too nervous to bear witnesses – to take the pudding up and bring it in… Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper which smells like a washing-day. That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that. That was the pudding. In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered – flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quarter of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”
In any case, Christmas puddings have very good keeping properties and many families keep one back from Christmas to be eaten at another celebration later in the year, often at Easter. Popular British educator, florist and author Constance Spry states that it was not uncommon to go so far as to make each year’s pudding the previous Christmas!
Images from Wikipedia.