Christmas pudding (or plum) is the traditional end of the British Christmas dinner. But what we think of as Christmas pudding, is not what it was originally!
The Christmas pudding originated as a fourteenth-century porridge called “frumenty” that was made of beef and lamb with raisins, currants, plums, wines and spices. This would often be more like a soup and eaten as a fasting meal in preparation for the holiday festivities.
In 1595, Frumenty was slowly turning into a plum pudding, having thickened with eggs, bread crumbs, dried fruit and had been given more flavor with the addition of beer and spirits. It became the usual Christmas dessert around 1650, but in 1664 the Puritans forbade it as a bad habit.
In 1714, King George I reestablished it as part of the Christmas meal, after having tasted and enjoyed Plum Pudding. For the Victorian era, Christmas puddings had become somewhat similar to those eaten today.
Over the years, many superstitions have surrounded the Christmas puddings. A superstition says that the pudding should be made with 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and his disciples and that each member of the family should take turns stirring the pudding with a wooden spoon from east to west, in honor of the Magi.
The Sunday before Advent Sunday (which is also the last Sunday of the year of the Church), is sometimes referred to as the “Revolt Sunday.” This is because the opening words of Collect for the day (the main prayer) in the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 (used in the Anglican churches) say:
“Arise, we pray, O Lord, the wills of your faithful, that they may abundantly produce the fruit of good works, so that you may be rewarded abundantly, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”
Although Christmas puddings are eaten at Christmas, some customs associated with pudding are about Easter! The decorative holly twig on top of the pudding is a reminder of the Crown of Thorns of Jesus that he wore when he was killed. Brandy or another alcoholic beverage is sometimes poured over the pudding and lit on the table to make a spectacular display. It is said that this represents the love and power of Jesus.
In the Middle Ages, it was also thought that holly brought good luck and had healing powers. It was often planted near houses with the belief that it protected the inhabitants.
During the Victorian era, desserts in large, rich houses were often cooked in fancy molds (such as gelatin). These were often in the forms of towers or castles. Normal people only had puddings in the form of balls. If the pudding was a bit heavy, they were called cannonballs!
Putting a silver coin in the pudding is another ancient custom that is said to bring luck to the person who finds it. In the United Kingdom, the traditionally used currency was a ‘sixpence’ of silver. The currency closest to that now is a five-pence piece!
The tradition seems to go back to the Cake of the Twelfth Night that was eaten during the festivities of the ‘Twelfth Night’ of Christmas (the official end of the Christmas celebrations). Originally, a dried pea or a bean was cooked on the cake and whoever obtained it was “king or queen” during the night. There are records of this practice that dates back to the court of Edward II (early 1300). The bean was also sometimes a small crown silver ring. The first coins used were a Silver Farthing or a penny. After the First World War it became a little three and then sixpence.
You can also get other items (sometimes called ‘tokens’ or ‘favors’) placed in the Christmas pudding that also meant having special meanings:
- Bachelor button: if a single man found it, they would remain single the following year.
- Thimble of Spinster / Old Maid: if a single woman found it, she would stay single the following year.
- A ring: if only one person finds this, it means that they will marry the following year. It can also mean that you will be rich for the following year.