Christmas collection: The origins of the good old Christmas Pudding

The traditional festive dessert is of course, the Christmas Pudding. Whilst it might not be to everyone’s tastes, let’s take a look back at where the Christmas Pudding comes from…

The very first Christmas Pudding was not what it looks like today. Originally it was a broth made of raisins, dried fruit, spices and wine, thickened with breadcrumbs or ground almonds and included meat. This was called ‘Plum Pottage’ and was served at the beginning of the meal.

This mixture was also eaten as a porridge called ‘frumenty’ in the 14th century, made up of beef and mutton, raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. This was eaten as a fasting meal in preparation for the Christmas festivities. Sounds delicious doesn’t it?

By 1595 frumenty slowly became plum pudding as dried fruit became more plentiful in England. It shifted from being very savoury to sweet. Plum pudding was thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit and with the addition of more beer and spirits. The Chevalier d’Arvieux made a voyage on an English forty-gun ship in 1658 and was served plum pudding made from biscuit crumbs, beef suet, currants, salt and pepper, wrapped in a cloth and boiled in a pot of broth. He described it as ‘detestable’.

Around 1650 it became the customary Christmas dessert. However, when Oliver Cromwell rose to power in 1647 as the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, he banned it alongside Yule logs, carol-singing and nativity scenes. He was a strong Puritan. Puritans saw Christmas as a wasteful festival that threatened Christian beliefs and encouraged immoral activities. They believed that the Christmas pudding was ‘sinfully rich’ and ‘unfit for God-fearing people’.

Oliver Cromwell

It wasn’t until the 18th century that the Christmas Pudding started to gain visibility again. In 1714 King George I, England’s first German-born ruler, re-established it as part of the Christmas meal after tasting and enjoying the plum pudding. He was named the “pudding king” as rumours surfaced that he requested the plum pudding at his first English Christmas banquet.

King George I

By Victorian times, Christmas Pudding changed into something similar to today’s recipe. Families in England began making it on Stir Up Sunday. Stir Up Sunday was the last Sunday before Advent (five weeks before Christmas) in which family members would take turns stirring up the pudding three times, making a wish, before it was then wrapped and boiled and set aside to mature until Christmas Day. The Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy 1549 includes the prayer that beings “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of the faithful people”. The words would be read in Church on the last Sunday before Advent and so the people knew it was time to start on their Christmas dessert. It was believed that if an unmarried person forgot to join in, they would not find a partner in the upcoming year.

G37WPJ Family and servants stir the pudding Date: 1881

Originally the puddings were shaped into a sphere and boiled in a cloth. This was eventually replaced with steaming the dessert in a pudding basin or elaborate mould. By the 19th century the ingredients were more or less set in stone including suet, brown sugar, raisins and currents, candied orange peel, eggs, breadcrumbs, nutmeg, cloves, allspice and plenty of alcohol.

By 1845 Eliza Acton, a Sussex-born food writer, started referring to the pudding as ‘Christmas Pudding’ and the title has stuck ever since.

Eliza Acton

In the 20th century, all over the British Empire people were encouraged to show patriotism in the way they bought food and this included the Christmas Pudding. In 1925 Australian fruit growers paraded a huge Christmas Pudding through the streets of London. At the top of the pudding was an Australian flag and the Union Jack. On the back were the words ‘your pudding of Empire products’. George V in 1927 encouraged people to make a Christmas pudding made from ingredients sourced in the British Empire. In 1930 a propaganda film called One Family was made to promote the pudding of George V and the Empire trade, increasing the popularity of the pudding.

One Family Propaganda Film
Empire Marketing Board 1927-1933 poster, The Empire Christmas Pudding Recipe

Putting a silver coin in the pudding is a tradition that dates back to the Twelfth Night Cake which was eaten during the festivities on the ‘Twelfth Nigh’ of Christmas (the official end of Christmas celebrations). In the old-age custom, the coin was originally a dried pea or bean and whoever got it was king or queen for the night. There are records of this dating back to the court of Edward II in the early 1300s. The first coins used were Silver Farthing or a penny. After WW1 it became a threepenny bit and then a sixpence, with the person finding the coin receiving good luck.

It is said that the flaming brandy represents the Passion of Christ and the traditional 13 ingredients in the pudding are to represent Jesus and his 12 disciples. The garnish of holly on the top of the pudding is also said to represent the crown of thorns.

Over time the Christmas Pudding evolved from being a savoury meal including meat, to becoming a sweet dessert full of fruit and lots of alcohol.

The old age custom of serving Christmas Pudding as the staple Christmas dessert is still alive and well in the 21st century. Last year’s John Lewis advert is a prime example of how the Christmas Pudding is still in the nation’s hearts, with the dragon lighting up the Christmas Pudding at the end.

Whether your taste buds agree or not, the Christmas Pudding has its roots centuries ago making it a Christmas tradition that should be preserved and cherished.

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