There are certain things we take for granted at Christmas – things without which, the festive season wouldn’t be the same. The tree, presents, decorations, cards – and of course, a sumptuous dinner rounded off with Christmas pudding.
Eating a pudding as part of a festive meal is a tradition that goes back for many centuries – but when did the Christmas pudding as we know it first appear, and why do we eat it at this time of year?
What are the origins of Christmas pudding?
There were a number of precursors to the modern pudding that we serve at Christmas time. In medieval times a potage known as frumenty, made of cracked wheat, eggs, almonds, currants and spices, was often eaten in Celtic nations at Christmas, though in England it was more commonly made at Lent. Sometimes various meats would be added to the mixture.
By the early 18th Century, frumenty had largely been replaced by plum pudding as a celebratory dessert. Meat preservation techniques had improved so the savoury parts of mince pies and puddings were reduced, more dried fruit and breadcrumbs introduced for thickening, and beer or spirits added for flavour. ‘Plum’, however, was a pre-Victorian term for a raisin, so actual plums rarely if ever featured.
When did we start eating plum pudding at Christmas?
There’s some evidence to suggest that eating a special pudding at Christmas was popular prior to the 18th century, but that the tradition had been discouraged by Puritans.
A popular but unsubstantiated myth has King George I re-introducing plum pudding to the Christmas meal in 1714. What is certain is that a tradition of making Christmas puddings on the Sunday before Advent began at this time.
The collect (or main prayer) for this day in the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer begins: "Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works...". This led to the day becoming known as Stir-up Sunday. Traditionally every child in the household would give the pudding mixture a stir and make a wish while doing so.
However, the traditional cannonball-shaped pudding of flour, fruits, suet, sugar and spices topped with holly is first recorded in 1830, while the cook Eliza Acton was the first to refer to it as 'Christmas Pudding' in her bestselling 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families.
What other traditions are involved in the cooking and eating of Christmas pudding?
Prior to the 19th century, Christmas pudding was almost always cooked by boiling it in a pudding cloth. By Victorian times, the pudding mixture was usually put into a basin and then steamed.
There are records of items and tokens being put in cakes and puddings from as early as the 1300s, but once again this became particularly popular in the Victorian era, when threepences and sixpences would be added to the pudding mixture. Finding the lucky coin was said to bring good financial luck in the coming year.