On the principal that anything banned by a puritan like Oliver Cromwell has to be good, I should like Christmas Pudding: however, I find today’s offerings a bit too sweet and rich. When my mother was alive and cooked one for each member of the family (starting it in February and giving it time to mature instead of following tradition and making it on the Sunday before Advent) I used to love it, especially fried in butter on Christmas morning. I’m a lazy cook however and as I don’t like the store-bought versions, I usually serve something like a Pavlova for Christmas dessert.
I once had the idea of cooking a Christmas pudding by usng the original receipe but I gave up on that as a) finding the origins of the pudding wasn’t easy and b) when I delved deeper it sounded revolting. It seems that at the end of the winter solstice (or towards the time of the pagan festival which had been co-opted into the Christian festival of Christmas) all the good things from the recent harvest were poured into a huge cauldron and boiled up, things like hulled wheat, milk, apples, spices, honey and whatever was left in the barns and the larders. The resulting concoction was called a porridge.
The story has it that every member of the household had to stir the pudding to ensure good health in the coming year but I like to think that as stirring this enormous cauldron wasn’t easy for the cook of the house (always the woman) the ritual of everyone in the household from the youngest to the oldest, including servants, being required to stir the pot, was devised by her to reduce the work. This tradition is still adhered to in families where the pudding is still made – it certainly was in mine.
Over the centuries the mixture was improved by the addition of dried fruits, meat and alcoholic spirits, although I would argue that meat may not necessarily have improved it. When the Elizabethans added prunes (dried plums) it became plum porridge but no one can say for certain when plum porridge became plum pudding. It may well have been when meat was dropped from the recipe in the late 18th/early 19th century.
In its early incarnation it was boiled in a cloth dusted with flour which gave the pudding the traditional round ball shape, so familiar from Christmas card illustrations and Dickensian prints. Although my mother never baked one in a floured cloth, she always wrapped the pudding basin in a cloth which was loosely tied at the top to allow the pudding to rise and for the top to take on a round shape. Silver sixpences were always included in the pudding as a symbol of future wealth for the family, but we children were delighted with the ones we got in the here and now.
Charles Dickens immortalised it in A Christmas Carol the performance of which is now an essential part of Christmas: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are said to have loved it: and along with Christmas cards, Christmas trees, tinsel and turkey, I think we can say that the Christmas pudding as part of the Christmas festivities, is here to stay.