In America, Christmas Pudding (also known as plum pudding or figgy pudding) is a dish as famous as it is misunderstood. It’s the flaming center of the climactic meal of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and pops up in carols themselves: “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” has two whole verses about demanding figgy pudding. But for the uninitiated, Christmas puddings are eyed with skepticism befitting a dish that can be accurately described as a cross between a fruitcake and a haggis, set on fire.
Christmas pudding has its roots in medieval English sausages, when fat, spices and fruits (the best preservatives of their day) were mixed with meats, grains and vegetables and packed into animal stomachs and intestines so they would keep as long as possible. The first records of plum puddings date to the early 15th century, when “plum pottage,” a savory concoction heavy on the meat and root vegetables, was served at the start of a meal.
Then as now, the “plum” in plum pudding was a generic term for any dried fruit—most commonly raisins and currants, with prunes and other dried, preserved or candied fruit added when available. By the end of the 16th century, dried fruit was more plentiful in England and plum pudding made the shift from savory to sweet. The development of the pudding cloth—a floured piece of fabric that could hold and preserve a pudding of any size—further freed the pudding from dependence on animal products (but not entirely: suet, the fat found around beef and mutton kidneys, has always been a key ingredient).
By the mid-1600s, plum pudding was sufficiently associated with Christmas that when Oliver Cromwell came to power in 1647 he had it banned, along with Yule logs, carol-singing and nativity scenes. To Cromwell and his Puritan associates, such merry-making smacked of Druidic paganism and Roman Catholic idolatry. In 1660 the Puritans were deposed and Christmas pudding, along with the English monarchy, was restored. Fifty years later, England’s first German-born ruler, George I, was styled the “pudding king” after rumors surfaced of his request to serve plum pudding at his first English Christmas banquet.
As with many English-derived Christmas traditions, the standard form for Christmas pudding solidified during the Victorian era, when English journalists, political leaders and novelists (not least Dickens himself) worked to promulgate a standardized, family-friendly English Christmas. Among England’s poor, Christmas saving clubs sprung up to help housewives lay away pennies throughout the year to purchase pudding ingredients come Christmastime.
Families throughout England began to celebrate the last Sunday before Advent—in which the Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy includes a prayer that begins, “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people”—as “Stir-up Sunday,” in which family members take turns stirring up the Christmas pudding-to-be, which was then wrapped and boiled and set aside to mature until Christmas Day. By the 19th century the ingredients were more or less standardized to suet, brown sugar, raisins and currents, candied orange peel, eggs, breadcrumbs, nutmeg, cloves, allspice and plenty of alcohol.
For Victorian citizens of the British Empire, the Christmas pudding was a summation of their conception of the world: a globelike mass, studded with savory bits from distant colonies, bound together by a steamed and settled matrix of Englishness. An 1848 satirical cartoon titled “John Bull Showing the Foreign Powers How to Make a Constitutional Plum-Pudding” showed an English stand-in preparing to carve a bulging, holly-sprigged pudding labeled “Liberty of the Press,” “Trial by Jury,” “Common Sense” and “Order.” The Christmas pudding’s well-preserved nature—it took a month to get seasoned and could last over a year—meant it could be enjoyed as a taste of home by far-flung soldiers and colonizers. In 1885 a British newspaper reported the joyful consumption of a plum pudding—sent overland via special envoy from Tehran—by a group of British soldiers stationed in northwestern Afghanistan.
Over the past century the Christmas pudding has slimmed down and simplified somewhat, according to modern tastes. The pudding-bag, in which the pudding is twice-boiled, is often replaced with molds shaped like a half-melon or bundt cake. Instructions for lighting the brandy sauce prior to serving include numerous fire-safety caveats. The pudding’s pagan roots are now celebrated rather than swept under the Christmas-tree skirt. A recent history cheerfully notes that the game of “snap dragons,” in which children compete to pluck raisins from the flaming brandy, likely has origins with the Celtic Druids. Across the Atlantic, where fruitcake’s own fortunes have waned in recent decades, Christmas pudding remains a curiosity known primarily from films, books and song lyrics, and is associated with Christmas crackers, paper crowns, Bob Cratchit and Boxing Day.