The Proof of the Pudding is in the Eating

23rd November 2018

Whether it’s the office party, a seasonal pub lunch or dinner on the big day itself, there’s only one way to end a traditional Christmas meal. With Stir-Up Sunday this weekend, Lisa Botwright looks at the history and tradition behind this enduring classic…

You’ve tucked away the turkey, polished off the pigs-in-blankets and scoffed the sprouts, but the best bit’s still to come. It’s time for the Christmas pudding – the indulgent combination of spices, dried fruit and alcohol – to make its majestic arrival, held aloft in brandy-soaked, flame-filled triumph.

Christmas pudding, also known as plum pudding, is as rich in tradition as in taste. The custom is to use 13 ingredients, to represent Jesus and his disciples, and the pudding should be made five weeks before Christmas, on the Sunday before Advent – known to Anglican Christians as Stir-Up Sunday. The name comes from the opening words of the Church of England’s Collect (the main prayer) for the day in the Book of Common Prayer, which begins: ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.’ 

Other traditions include each member of the family standing from East to West, to represent the Wise Men visiting Jesus, while stirring the mixture in this order and making a wish. Adding small coins to the pudding is said to bring wealth in the coming year – although a trend to cooking in microwave ovens and the twenty-first century emphasis on health and safety mean this tradition is no longer as common. And the customary garnish of holly represents Jesus’s crown of thorns.

Earliest historic mentions of Christmas pudding refer to a 14th century porridge called ‘frumenty’ that was made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. It had a liquid texture and was eaten as a fasting ‘soup’ in preparation for the Christmas festivities. By 1595, frumenty was slowly changing into a plum pudding, thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit and flavoured with beer and spirits.

Like a great deal of Christmas imagery (after all, there wasn’t much snow around in Bethlehem two thousand years ago), the traditions of holly and of the lighting of the pudding probably evolved from much earlier pre-Christian winter solstice customs – which led to the zealous Puritans attempting to ban the pudding, as well as anything else suspiciously idolatrous, pagan or fun, in the 1660s.

As techniques for meat preserving improved in the 18th century, the savoury element of both the mince pie and the plum pottage reduced as the sweet content increased. The mince pie kept its name, but the pottage was increasingly referred to as plum pudding: ‘plum’ meaning ‘raisins’, rather than real plums.

It was in Victorian times, thanks to Prince Albert’s seasonal enthusiasm and despite (or perhaps because of) Charles Dickens’s gentle parodying, that many of today’s customs, including the serving of Christmas pudding, became embedded in popular culture. In A Christmas Carol, first published in1843, Dickens writes: ‘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.’

The pudding has endured simply because it’s so tasty – a winning combination of all the most decadent and luxurious ingredients at our disposal. Christmas puddings should be unapologetically dense, without being solid, and will boast different proportions of ingredients. Each chef will tell you that their recipe is the best, and families hand their interpretations down from generation to generation. The concentration of alcohol means it keeps for months, even years, and so families who follow Stir-Up Sunday traditions may be making their puddings 13 months ahead each time.

Then there’s the essential question of what to accompany it with. Will it be brandy butter, thick cream or custard… or even, notwishtanding gasps from purists… a good dollop of ice cream?

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