An English Christmas 3 (Revisited) : Bring Us a Figgy Pudding

This post, part of the sequence that first ran in the Christmas season of 2010, should have been gone live yesterday, but my hosting duties got in the way of my posting duties.  Hope you’ll enjoy the original post and updates in any case.

Don’t want to make your own? posts this photo with a suggestion that you buy your pudding from Fortnum & Mason.

It’s Christmas day as I write this so, since I’ve told you about Christmas cake and mince pies, there’s just time to tell you about Christmas pudding before the holiday is over, and I’ll have covered the Big Three.

Christmas pudding is traditionally a steamed concoction of dried fruits and suet held together with a minimal amount of breadcrumbs or flour. It’s also called plum pudding, but doesn’t have plums and probably never did; the name comes from the prunes that it used to have and that some recipes still call for.

Update: But as I learned from a guest at Christmas dinner yesterday, at one time raisins could be called plums.  In fact, any fruit that in any way resembled a plum could be called one; the Oxford English Dictionary features a quote from the 18th century in which somebody refers to a “great Plum” that “is called Mango”.  Hmmm.

Some recipes use a lot of dried figs; puddings like today’s Christmas pudding probably inspired the “bring us a figgy pudding” line in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”.

And Christmas puddings are soaked with spirits—as is pretty much everything in the United Kingdom at Christmastime, including the inhabitants.

There are some pleasant traditions associated with Christmas pudding. For starters, for at least the last 150 years there’s been a tradition that everyone in the household should take a turn stirring the pudding, and the longer you stir, the more good luck you’ll have in the next year. Clearly some sly cook 150 years ago came up with this as a labour-saving idea.

In another tradition, the cook adds coins or other inedible prizes to the pudding, and each diner has a chance of finding one—if not breaking a tooth on it. Christmas puddings are best eaten carefully.

Originally the prizes were coins, and if you found one in your portion, you got to keep it. Nowadays it’s more likely that the cook will stir in symbolic objects, little trinkets about the size of charms on a charm bracelet, though the symbolism varies from family to family. For some, a tiny horseshoe means good luck, or a tiny anchor means you’ll find a safe harbour (which could be interpreted as a new home, a new job, or anything else you like).

Here again, I’m lucky enough to have heirlooms handed down from my mother-in-law. In our Christmas puddings, you might find a silver sixpence, a button, a thimble, or a ring said to be a grandmother’s wedding ring, though if it was, the grandmother must have had truly tiny hands. The coin predicts wealth in the new year, the button says you’ll get new clothes, the thimble means plenty of work, and the ring stands for love. (You can keep the luck, but you have to give the prizes themselves back. In the first place, they don’t make silver sixpences anymore.)

We had our Christmas pudding earlier today—flaming Christmas pudding at that. You pour warmed brandy over the pudding and put a match to it. If you dim the lights before dessert, it looks pretty impressive, with blue flames flickering all over and around the dark pudding. And in case there isn’t enough liquor involved in the making of the pudding or the flaming of the pudding, you serve it with a hard sauce made of butter, sugar and brandy, that melts over the hot pudding.

I was asked for fruitcake recipes after the Christmas cake article, so I’ve put recipes for Christmas cake and for Christmas pudding in the Featured Link section (right hand side of the screen). My favorite Christmas pudding comes from a chef called Nigel Slater; his is the only one I’ve seen that calls for dried apricots. The first time I made it, I didn’t have all the dried fruits it called for, so I substituted more apricots for anything I didn’t have, the result was fabulous, and now I add extra apricots on purpose.

Of course, you’re supposed to make the pudding ahead—in earlier times, some people made the pudding at New Year’s and kept it to eat at the following Christmas. For those who don’t have time for such things, or confidence that a pudding made 12 months ago is still edible, there are plenty of Christmas puddings in the supermarkets, most of them in microwaveable bowls so there’s no steaming.

Or you could order Christmas pudding at High Timber, a restaurant in London that serves the dish, but only to diners who sign a legal waiver. They’re afraid you’ll sue if you chip a tooth, or swallow one of the charms. A serving isn’t cheap, either, at £7, but that’s because you get to keep the charms—and they come from Tiffany’s.

Merry Christmas!


Filed under Culture, Current events, Food, History

9 responses to “An English Christmas 3 (Revisited) : Bring Us a Figgy Pudding

  1. Malcolm

    You clearly move in exalted circles, M-E. In our humble Cornish cottage we had but one sixpenny bit and all it brought was wealth–except that it never did. Once, lacking brandy, I suggested methylated spirit; that was the year we threw away our Christmas pud. Another year we bought one in a tin and the saucepan of water that heated the tin boiled dry while we enjoyed the capon. That was the year we scraped our Christmas pud off the ceiling.

  2. Cathy Villa

    Mary Ellen, I really enjoyed your Christmas posts. I’ve always wondered what a “figgy pudding” was! My mother-in-law once made a fruit cake that was my favorite because it seemed to have more nuts than fruit. Alas, I never got her recipe. Merry Christmas to you and Ernest!

  3. Hester Higton

    I think I posted last time about how the pudding is traditionally made on Stir-up Sunday, which is so named because the collect (prayer for the day) begins ‘Stir up, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people …’. That particular Sunday is the last one before Advent, and the pudding would be made then to be kept for the following year. Anyway, I was really leaving this comment to say that when I was explaining to my children about the different tokens in the pudding, I hunted for a list of the common ones, and this post was the first link that Google returned!

    • Sorry it has taken me so long to reply, but I was looking for your previous comment. I’m sure you’re right that you left the comment here last time, but I can’t find it anywhere. It seems to have fallen, at least for now, down the back of the metaphorical (blogophorical?) sofa, for which I apologize.

      But that just makes your comment about Stir-up Sunday doubly welcome now! And many thanks for letting me know that Google is helping me with publicity to that extent. May it continue to send me new readers in the New Year…

  4. Pingback: 43/365: National Plum Pudding Day « Eat My Words

  5. Ruth Warrens

    My Grandma used to put in n-1 six pences, where n was the number of grandchildren, and one 2 shilling ‘bit’ (coin).

    • Ooh–great story! My pudding recipe makes two puddings–well, I could halve it, but then I’d have to do more work in the long run–so this year, I’m going to thaw and then steam last year’s auxiliary back-up extra pudding, which has spent the year in the freezer. I’ll cut slits in it before steaming and tuck the prizes into the inside that way, so we can still have fun with it even though it’s not a freshly-made pudding.

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