Christmas Pudding is a steamed pudding of some type served at Christmas. For many people, Christmas Pudding means Plum Pudding, just as the Christmas bird means turkey. There are actually other types of puddings also served at Christmas, such as Figgy Pudding or Carrot Pudding.
A Christmas Pudding will have lots of fruit in it, like a Christmas fruitcake, but it is always moister (good news for those of you who wouldn’t be opposed to fruit cake on principle, had you not choked down so many dry ones out of politeness) and is served warm. Mostly, though, Christmas Pudding is about tradition, a tradition in itself, and all the traditions associated with it.
A Christmas Pudding needs time to age, like a good fruitcake. Some people make them a year in advance, but generally they are made on the 5th Sunday before Christmas, giving them about 5 weeks to age. In fact, tradition starts with this timing. That Sunday, the 5th before Christmas, which is also the Sunday before Advent or the 25th Sunday after Trinity, has in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer the following collect: “Stir up we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people…” (Collect for Sunday Next Before Advent, Book of Common Prayer.)
With that reading in the morning and the making of the pudding in the afternoon, is it any wonder that this day has become fondly known as “Stir-up Sunday”? It is considered good luck for everyone in the house to have a go at stirring it and make a wish while doing so. Tradition further holds that you have to stir clockwise for good luck.
There is a tradition of putting a silver coin in the pudding mix, that would bring good luck to whoever found it. For many years, it was a silver threepenny piece. Those are now just as hard to find in England as they always were in North America. If you found a gold ring in your pudding, it meant two things: (a) your hosts must have been blooming rich, that they could toss gold rings into a pudding, and (b) that you would be married in the upcoming year. If an unmarried woman found a thimble, it meant she would remain a spinstress all her life.
If you do add anything like coins or charms to the pudding, choose items large enough to be noticed and tell everyone to be looking out for them. This serves two purposes: it will increase the fun, and it counts as a word to the wise, so that Christmas dinner doesn’t close with people choking to death or breaking teeth.
As much debate as there is over what kind of pudding and what recipe constitutes the true Christmas Pudding, all these people unite in the debate against homemade or bought. For them, whether you buy it from Harrods’, Fortnum & Mason or Tesco’s, buying a ready-made Christmas Pudding is like getting your wedding cake from Sara Lee. There is no middle ground; just as the Puritans banned it entirely (see History section below), they would now ban store-bought. But their fellow consumers wouldn’t: the Waitrose grocery store chain sold out of all its 2010 Christmas puddings, made for them by Heston Blumenthal, by November of that year. 25,000 were sold at a price of £13.99; resale value on e-Bay went as high as £250.
After all other Christmas Pudding debates have been settled one way or the other, one final one crops up on the big day: how to heat the pudding for serving. There’s a strong argument to be made for the traditional method of reheating it in a steamer, which will take a few hours. The slow, moist heating process can give the flavours time to slowly waken again and meld together. Plus, even if you bought the pudding ready-made, steaming it will make you feel as though you’ve actually done something towards preparing it. The argument in favour of microwave reheating is a more prosaic one: who on earth has a spare stove burner they can tie up for 3 hours right before Christmas dinner? The stress of being one burner down might have you so deep into the booze cabinet that you won’t taste any melded flavours.
If you have managed to find the time to make your own pudding, but still can’t decide which way to reheat it, consider whether you’ve put any coins or charms in it. If there’s metal in the pudding, your reheating decision just got easier: you’re steaming.
Most people serve Christmas Pudding with a hard sauce (such as brandy butter), though it’s not uncommon to find pockets of tradition that hold it should be served with a lemon sauce.
Slices of leftover Christmas Pudding are really nice lightly fried up in a little bit of butter.
Germans save the British Christmas Pudding
The Puritans banned Christmas Pudding in 1664. They felt that it was a “lewd custom”, whose rich, decadent ingredients were “unfit for a God-fearing people.” Many people are credited with reviving the tradition. One is King George 1st in 1714, who was actually German. He had eaten plum pudding earlier in the year, developed a taste for it, and decided to serve it at their Christmas feast, reviving the tradition. The Quakers, the politically-correct do-gooders of their time, foamed at the mouth and had fits over its revival — this point is important to note for a bit later.
By the start of the 1800s, Christmas Pudding was falling out of fashion again, until along came another German to revive it — Prince Albert. That was the only nudge that the Victorians, who loved festive occasions, needed. They were the ones who started putting coins or charms in the pudding. The tradition of placing things in the pudding is reminiscent of the Roman Saturnalia feast, when cakes were served with a bean inside them, and whoever found the bean would have luck. In more recent history, a bean was still placed in a Twelfth Night cake, and it’s perhaps from the Twelfth Night cake tradition that the Victorians got the idea.
Now Christmas Pudding, whether remembered fondly or imagined, is firmly a part of a British Christmas.
Why didn’t Christmas Pudding make it over to North America?
Many North Americans imagine Christmas Pudding as part of a traditional Christmas, but it never actually appears on North American tables. Everything else is there: Christmas crackers, Christmas cake, Christmas trees, egg nog, shortbread cookies, roasted birdie… but how did Christmas Pudding get dropped off the list? Amongst the first people to settle in America were the Puritans and the Quakers (remember them from above?) and other puritanical religious groups. (Canada had the French at that time, who had different food customs altogether.) They came to America not only to escape religious persecution (some of it no doubt duly-earned), but to escape the “sinful excesses” that they couldn’t abide in England, and one of those excesses was Christmas Day. They didn’t celebrate Christmas as a holiday, but kept right on working and ate normal food for dinner that night. Christmas Pudding, though — a steamed, decadent fruit-filled Christmas Pudding — was singled out for a special place on their hate list. It was their bête-noire — and that was one religious tradition that they made sure didn’t come over from the Old World (they did, however, bring over other cherished religious traditions, such as those perfected during the Spanish Inquisition. See Salem Witch Trials.)
So Christmas Pudding, being an older British Christmas tradition, didn’t get established in America’s infancy. By the time America had shaken off its Puritanical roots and was ready for big Christmas celebrations (the Puritans saw Christmas as a lost cause and switched to working in U.S. Customs, keeping American souls safe from French cheeses), it absorbed all the “newer” traditions such as Christmas trees and Christmas cake, that were in vogue in the British magazines they read, but the older ones such as Christmas Pudding and mummery didn’t quite make it (though mummery made it to Newfoundland.) Still, North Americans do know of Christmas Pudding. They read of it in all the books, see it in the movies, and the many British who have continued to settle on the other side of the Pond keep knowledge of it alive. But in North America, you’re just as likely to see pumpkin pie as the dessert at Christmas — though it’s hard to know why you’d want it again when you just had it for Thanksgiving. Mind you, if your response is that you only get it twice a year, and you want to get while the getting is good, that may be as good an answer as any.
Still, there has always been a curiosity over the years in North America about Christmas Pudding, perhaps as part of the never ending quest to make Christmas dinner look different from Thanksgiving dinner, perhaps as part of a feeling that there’s something that should be on the table that someone’s holding back on. In the land where there is so much at Christmas that it is known as “the season of haste and waste”, there’s still nothing on the table that suddenly blazes with blue flames bringing joy and delight to the faces of all. The main barrier is perhaps that North Americans don’t know how to make steamed puddings in general, and most don’t even know what steamed puddings are — in North America, puddings are something thick and liquidy like custard or blanc mange. Christmas cake they do serve, because they know what cakes are, and if Christmas Pudding were Christmas pie, they’d be all over it.
Literature & Lore
‘More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides … What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used … to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.’ — John Stubbes (c1550 – c1593, The Anatomy of Abuses 1583)
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-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top. — Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. [bedight = decked]
Guilano’s fish and chip shop, in Newburn, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, offers its customers the chance to tuck in to some deep fried Christmas Pudding. dipped in batter and deep-fried, 50p a slice (BBC News, 2003).
Thring, Oliver. Consider Christmas Pudding. Manchester: The Guardian. 21 December 2010.