Here in Britain, no Christmas is complete without a helping of Christmas pudding (or ‘figgy pudding’ as it is called in the popular carol, We Wish You a Merry Christmas). A blend of dried fruit, spices, suet and other ingredients, it is often made to traditional family recipes and sometimes left to age a whole year before being served.
Its appearance at the dinner table is one of the highlights of the festive season, as described in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843): ‘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.’
But where did the custom of Christmas Pudding originate?
According to popular belief, Christmas pudding dates back to medieval times, when it was prepared with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the apostles, and stirred from east to west in honour of the journey made by the magi. However, no definite recipes for ‘plum pudding’ appear until the 1600s. Back then, it was associated more with the Harvest Festival than with Christmas.
Another myth claims that King George I began the Christmas pudding tradition in 1714, when he asked for ‘plum pudding’ to be served during his first royal Christmas feast. He has been nicknamed ‘The Pudding King’ as a result, but sadly there is no contemporary evidence for this story.
The tale of the 18th century Pudding King probably originated as late as 1911, when the Strand Magazine described how the royal children of King George V’s household enjoyed a Christmas Dinner of ‘traditional roast turkey, sausages and plum pudding. The latter, by the way, is made from a recipe that has been in possession of the Royal Family since the days of George I.’
Whether or not George I had plum pudding at his feast, it was an important feature of Christmas dinner by Victorian times (like so many of our Christmas traditions, it was made fashionable by the queen’s husband, Prince Albert). In 1845, the cook Eliza Acton finally gave it the name ‘Christmas Pudding’ .
Today most of us buy our Christmas puddings ready-made, but they are still based on recipes passed down from olden times – and, when the brandy is set alight, we still feel that same sense of wonder and delight!