It’s the most universally Christmassy icon in our culture. It dates back at least 600 years. It’s also incontrovertibly British: you won’t find it anywhere in Europe or beyond, apart from in English-speaking outposts of the former British Empire. It is our very own Christmas pudding.
Christmas pudding, along with mince pies and Yorkshire pudding, is one of the last relics of a once distinctive and inventive British cuisine. Our islands’ cookery tradition flourished for several hundred years until overwhelmed by the snobbish appeal of imported French chefs in the 19th century.
Throughout the Middle Ages Christmas was a time to push the boat out: twelve days of feasting and merrymaking ahead of the arrival of deep winter and the penitential fasting of Lent. Sixteenth century writers recorded feasts of pork, beef, lamb, fowls (including turkey for Henry VIII, an early-adopter of the bird in 1521), which were capped by a “plum pudding”. It combined breadcrumbs and suet with the most prestigious and expensive ingredients: imported spices such as mace and “plums” which covered all kinds of dried fruits such as prunes, currants and raisins and candied fruit. Originally the pudding was savoury but as sugar become more widely available it was sweetened up, and livened up with alcohol such as sack – what we would call sherry – or dark beer.
Another royal pudding fan was no less than Elizabeth I. She is reputed to have donated a pudding mixed with her own hand to the lawyers of the Middle Temple. Here it was consumed on a 29-foot long Bench Table, made from a single Windsor oak, which she also donated, and which is still in use. By custom a piece of each year’s pudding was saved, to be mixed in with that of the following year. The tradition was maintained right up to 1966, and revived by the Queen Mother in 1971.
By Oliver Cromwell’s time in 1650 the pudding was a Christmas staple, and a symbol of joy, so much so that it had to be banned by law, along with all other “idolatrous” practices such as maypole dancing. With the Restoration of 1660 it was naturally among the first customs to be restored, along with the monarchy.
When the first cookery books appeared around 1700 the pudding and its basic ingredients had become more or less the pudding that we would recognise today. Such was its symbolic importance the German-born George I is said to have demanded it to celebrate his first Christmas in England in 1714 – and with it his right to be King of this country.
But why is the pudding emblematically rendered round? The answer, of course, is that for centuries Christmas pudding was not steamed in a bowl but boiled in a pudding cloth, so that it ended up as an appealing globe. It’s as the globe that our company represents our treasured national pudding as a decoration on Christmas trees: an ancient tradition that will last …. forever?
Shop our collection of Christmas Pudding decorations and more here
Want more Gisela Graham food joy? Enjoy our recipe for Spiced Apple Mulled Cider here