I’ve always enjoyed a bowl of Christmas pudding and custard to complete my main Christmas meal; although it’s probably loaded with even more calories that I don’t need! Have you ever wondered where the tradition of serving Christmas pudding originally came from? You have! Great, let’s take a look.
Origin of the Christmas Pudding
The history of the Christmas pudding as we know it today can be traced back to the middle ages and more precisely, the 14th century. The story is somewhat similar to that of the history of mince pies, the original pudding didn’t look anything like the modern version we look forward to today.
The earliest versions can be linked to a common medieval staple called ‘frumenty’ which resembled a thick porridge. As with most medieval foods, frumenty was simple to make and accessible among peasant communities. Frumenty simply consisted of wheat boiled in milk. However, for those that could afford it, other ingredients were included to make it slightly sweeter such as sugar, plumbs, almonds, and others. Boiled meat may have been served alongside frumenty when available but the majority of peasants would have simply eaten it with the base ingredients being wheat and milk.
Frumenty and Plumb Pudding
Fast forward around 200 years and frumenty had slowly evolved into a pudding as opposed to being a staple on its own. Some refer to this as an early version of the plumb pudding but it’s likely later versions of frumenty contained dried fruits, and almonds and were thickened with eggs or bread crumbs. In some of the more affluent households, frumenty may have been offered in between courses to refresh the pallet.
Frumenty was likely the origin of the popular plumb pudding which is commonly referred to around the 15th century. Although it’s important to note that Plum pudding could refer to any dried fruit.
Plumb pudding wouldn’t sound quite so appealing today but you could think of it as a medieval sausage! Animal stomach lining was used as the outer skin and the contents would include meat, suet (animal fat), vegetable, fruit, and then filled with grains. As you can figure from the ingredients, this was anything but sweet and not really pudding material! Over time, and as dried fruit became more common, plumb pudding transitioned from a savory to a sweet dish.
Christmas Pudding in Victorian Times
If we skip forward a couple of centuries we arrive in the mid-18th century when plumb puddings started to become more common around Christmas time. This is due, in part, to the advent of stir-up Sunday. Based on religion, and the common book of prayer, stir-up Sunday was usually on the fifth Sunday before Christmas. It was tradition for families to come together on this day and mix the ingredients for the pudding all together; it was thought this would bring good luck throughout the following year. The fifth Sunday was chosen ahead of Advent, a time of the celebration of the birth of Jesus which begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas.
The common book of prayer begins with the following words and hence the reason for the name.
“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people”
As with the Christmas tree, the association of plumb puddings with Christmas can be linked to Prince Albert, who was the husband of Queen Victoria. Albert loved dark and rich puddings from his German heritage and experiences when he was a child.
Even today, it is usual to prepare Christmas pudding well in advance of Christmas and you’ll find this common with most recipes out there.
In some cases, Victorian Christmas Puddings were cooked in molds to resemble well-known shapes; one example might be a castle but this was more likely to happen in wealthier households. Most Victorians would cook their puddings by boiling them in a simple bowl as we still do today. By this time, the pudding was full of rich and dark dried fruits, wine, and some beef suet (fat) which was the last remaining ingredient from animals.
Trinkets and Silver Coins
It was customary in Victorian times to insert a small number of trinkets into the pudding for people to find and this may include a silver coin or even jewelry. It was thought that finding these would bring luck, the ring for marriage, the coin for wealth, or sometimes a booby prize like a thimble which would mean the opposite!
This tradition is still in practice today as you’ll often find a coin hidden in Christmas puddings. I remember the excitement in my youth at boarding school in the South of England when we had our Christmas dinner. Everyone looked forward to the chance of pulling out a coin wrapped in foil, especially one of the few £1 coins that were hidden! You can even buy special packs of trinkets to hide in your puddings!
Significance of Holly on Top
In almost all representations of the Christmas pudding, whether a real photo or some historical art, you’ll usually see it decorated with holly. This is thought to represent the crown placed on Jesus’s head at his crucifixion. The holly being the thorns and the red berries, the blood.
Is Christmas Pudding and Figgy Pudding the Same Thing?
Figgy Pudding is associated with Christmas and is very similar to Christmas pudding. The main difference is that’s made from figs instead of dried fruits such as raisins or sultanas. It’s much less common than it used to be but some households prefer the flavor.
Lighting your Christmas Pudding on Fire
It’s traditional to light your Christmas pudding on fire using a splash of rum or brandy and you may have wondered why this is a common practice, other than being a bit of fun and adding to the festive spirit. Thought to have started in the Victorian era, lighting the pudding is both symbolic and practical, symbolic as it represents the light and warmth of Jesus and practical because it ensures any excess alcohol is burnt off before serving. I’ve personally always felt it adds to the overall flavor as an added bonus!
Christmas Puddings Around the World
Christmas puddings are most common in the UK and other countries around the world that had a historical influence by the UK; some examples are Australia and South Africa. Other countries have developed their own traditions over the ages so you might find very different puddings on offer if you travel around Christmas time.
Christmas Pudding FAQ
I’ve added an FAQ below which I hope will help with some common questions you may have.
How far in advance should you make Christmas pudding?
Based on the concept of the stir-up, Christmas puddings have traditionally been made 5-6 weeks before Christmas. Most recipes will call for a decent length of time to allow the rich flavors to develop and the inclusion of alcohol will act as a preservative.
At a minimum, it’s best to make it a few days ahead of Christmas, this will at least allow some time for the flavor and taste to develop or you might end up with a bland pudding. Tip – Lighting the pudding with rum or brandy on the day will help strengthen the flavors if you’re short of time!
What is best to serve with Christmas pudding?
There are several options here and of course, you can select more than one 🙂
- Brandy butter
- White sauce
- Whipped cream
- Ice cream
How do you safely hide coins and trinkets in Christmas pudding?
To avoid issues around contamination it’s important to wrap coins or trinkets in either greaseproof paper or aluminum foil to ensure they don’t come into contact with the pudding. It’s also best to add them into the mix before you boil the pudding as it’s much harder to do it after and you’ll risk damage trying to get them in.
Hiding anything in the pudding introduces a risk of choking or internal injury, especially for younger children. It’s vital you discuss it with your family and guests before you serve so they can decide for themselves.
Is there a substitute for suet in Christmas puddings?
The beef suet gives your pudding its moist flavor but there are some alternatives if you’re concerned. Butter is probably the easiest and most common option here, it will keep your pudding soft and along with a richer taste. Vegetable shortening is another option here and is made from 100% vegetable oil.
Can children eat Christmas pudding?
Yes, children can eat Christmas pudding but you should be aware it contains the following which may cause allergic reactions
There may also be trace amounts of Alchohol left that didn’t burn off and if the pudding has been lit with either brandy or rum the alcohol content may have increased. This is unlikely to be harmful to a child but it’s obviously at the parent’s discretion.
Is there Gluten in Christmas Pudding?
Recipes will usually include wheat flour, due to the usual inclusion of bread crumbs, so it’s likely almost all Christmas puddings will contain gluten.
Gluten-free Christmas puddings are widely available.
Is there meat in Christmas pudding?
Meat is no longer included in the majority of Christmas puddings you’ll find today. There are some exceptions and that is only when the cook is trying to emulate an early style of pudding from medieval times (as you would have read above).
Beef suet is still included in some products so you’ll need to scan the packaging closely to find out if it’s been included.
Is there alcohol in Christmas pudding?
Christmas puddings will contain traces of ethanol as it won’t all burn off during the cooking process. The natural amount is usually small and safe enough for most people to consume without any negative effects. You might want to be careful if your pudding is doused in rum or brandy before being lit; you can’t guarantee it will all burn off.
It’s probably sensible to avoid or limit consumption if you are going to operate machinery or drive right after, especially if you’ve had other drinks with your meal.
Christmas puddings are widely available as alcohol free.
Are there nuts in Christmas pudding?
Although not strictly essential, many puddings will contain almond nuts (sometimes walnuts or pecans) so it’s important to check the ingredients if you’re worried or allergic to nuts.
Can you put Christmas pudding in the microwave?
You can put Christmas pudding in the microwave however it may change the texture slightly. To avoid the pudding drying out it’s recommended to put it in a microwavable container with a lid or if it’s in a bowl you can cover it with a cling film. You’ll have to select the best setting depending on the power of your microwave but a serving probably wouldn’t need much more than 30 seconds to 1 minute in most standard microwaves.
Can Christmas pudding go mouldy?
If you don’t store it properly in a dry and cool place with an airtight container then yes, your Christmas pudding will eventually grow some mold.If you see any mold growing on it then it’s important to throw it away.
There are no reasons why your pudding can’t last for weeks/months if stored correctly.