It is a long story. In fact, it is centuries old.
We have heard and perhaps even sung the Christmas carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in which the carol singers arrive at the door with wishes for a Merry Christmas, but then refuse to leave until the home owner brings them some figgy pudding. The Christmas wishes soon turn to a demand
” Now bring us some figgy pudding,
Now bring us some figgy pudding,
Now bring us some figgy pudding, And bring some out here “
These days, mothers are stumped when their children ask them “what is a figgy pudding?”
Mothers might tell their children that figgy pudding is the same as plum pudding but it is made with figs not plums. (this gets a “partially true” rating, because it fails to mention that many figgy pudding recipes have no figs) Others, avoid the whole issue of ingredients and just say that it is the same as Christmas pudding. That , then begs the question “what is Christmas Pudding?” For the answer, parents revive their memories of Christmas when they themselves were children – because they haven’t had the traditional plum pudding in years. Some have never enjoyed this moist, delicious, sweet, fruity dessert. However, they are able to explain that in the 1843 Charles Dickens story “The Christmas Carol” – Yes, that story with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future- that Mrs Chratit’s cannon ball is plum pudding. It is the same pudding that Mr Scrouge sees Mrs Cratchit present with great ceremony to her family as he peers through their window.
This answer is accompanied by the mother’s faint hope that her children might be enticed to watch the classic Christmas Carol movie with her, and the even fainter hope that they might read Dickens.
“In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered- flushed, but smiling proudly– with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half a quarten of ignited brandy, and bedight with a Christmas holly stuck on the top.
“Oh , a wonderful pudding.” Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs Cratchit since their marriage.”
But that still doesn’t explain why there are no plums in the pudding.
For the answer, we need to look back too medieval times. Without refrigeration, fish and meats went “off” quickly. To preserve the spoils of a hunt, they were preserved in a flour paste which contained sugar, honey and butter. However, sugar and honey were expensive and were , over time replaced with dried fruits. With the passage of more time, even the meat was replaced by fruits- and yet the original “minced meat” name of the pies remained. By the eighteenth century, cheaper sugar reduced the need meat preserving and spicing and the butter filling was no longer needed. Instead, the mince meat pies were served with a hard butter , sugar and wine spread on top of them.
Meanwhile, a second track in the history of Christmas Pudding was evolving- the Christmas pottage. From the Romans, thick and sweet pottages became popular . Britain had plenty of forests at the time before the industrial revolution and pottages were boiled in a large single cauldron over a wood fire , simmering for hours. The pottages were filled with spiced meats, vegetables and fruits. The rich added sugar and dried fruits and for special occasions were served with a brandy reinforced wine sauce which was set alight. However, by the seventeenth century, these meat and sweet meals were falling out of favor. Instead they were replaced by a plum portage that contained chicken and plums – the ancestor of today’s Christmas pudding.
Like the pies, with the pottage, meat was gradually replaced by fruits and home grown plums were eventually replaced by vine fruits- raisins and currants. For the rich, they contained suet, fruit and almonds. As the pottages (or porridge) became thicker they became puddings. In 1747 Mrs Hannah Glass published on of the last recipes for Christmas porridge. By 1806 , Mrs Maria Rundell had dropped the name porridge and replaced it with a recipe for common plum pudding- which contained fruit and wine but no meat. By 1836 plum pudding was popular offering at Christmas and in 1845 Eliza Acton named her plum pudding “Christmas Pudding”
Christmas pudding became a ritualized part of the royal Christmas dinner during the long reign of Queen Victoria, – they even topped it with the traditional hard butter sauce. Prince Albert’s plum pudding still contained prunes. However, for the rest of the populace, prunes were eventually replaced with raisins and plums were no longer part of the recipe. A similar evolution happened to figgy pudding as the more expensive and hard to obtain fig was replaced with raisins. While suet is called for in some recipes these days it is often replaced by butter. And while one can now get gluten and alcohol free plum pudding, thankfully most of today’s offerings are made with brandy as an essential part of the recipe. It is one more reason to celebrate at Christmas.
This post is based on “The Englishman’s Plum Pudding” by Maggie Black, published in History Today Vol.31 Issue 12 December 1981 – see www.historytoday.com/maggie-black/englishmans-plum-pudding
“We Wish you a Merry Christmas” written by Arthur Warrell, 1935