Plum pud traditions

A Victorian nightmare, surely the result of a surfeit of Christmas pudding
A Victorian nightmare, surely the result of a surfeit of Christmas pudding

Written by Heather Elvidge

Scrooges should look away now. This coming Sunday is the last before Advent and it’s the traditional time for making plum puddings.

From the 1830s it was known as Stir-up Sunday, a name borrowed from the Collect for the day that is still read in churches today. This is it, pre-modernisation: “Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the wills of Thy faithful people; that they may plenteously bring forth the fruit of good works, and may of Thee be plenteously rewarded.”

Naturally, there was another version:

Stir up we beseech thee, the pudding in the pot,

Stir up, we beseech thee, and keep it all hot,

When we get home, we’ll eat the lot.

It’s a rum cove, the traditional Christmas pudding. Dark, glossy, boozy, and literally bursting with dried fruit, it can hardly hold itself together until it reaches the table. For extra drama the groaning heap is doused in brandy and set on fire.

Its ancestor is plum pottage, a thick stew served at medieval banquets. Diced mutton or beef was simmered in wine with raisins, currants, prunes, spices, and breadcrumbs.

When the Puritans purged Christmas from the church’s calendar in 1644, rich foods were declared to be unfit for God-fearing people. But after the Restoration Christmas was reclaimed, with all its extravagances.

Then around 1700 someone had a bright idea. Why not lose some of the meat and wine from the old pottage recipe, then tie it all up in a cloth and boil it? When a round plum pudding landed on King George’s table in 1714, it was re-established as part of the Christmas feast. The new plum pudding spread to the masses, encouraged by falls in the price of dried fruit.

When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, he ensured the future of the plum pudding. Even a hard-up family like the Cratchits could afford one, and a dash of brandy to ignite it, though admittedly theirs was of very modest proportions.

Victorian pudding lore included a theme of lucky thirteen. Some puddings had 13 ingredients, one for Jesus and each of the Apostles, while cooks in wealthy households might make 13 puddings to distribute to the needy.

Have-a-go pud

While today’s festive pudding may look similar, it’s had a makeover or two since Mrs Cratchit revealed her “cannonball” to an expectant family. During the last century suet replaced the meat; then vegetable fat replaced the suet. Now endless variations are on sale, including gluten-free ones.

If you don’t like ready-made puddings there are plenty of recipes, especially online. Not much can go wrong, so go on, have a go.

The Victorians added silver charms and in the 20th century it was a silver thre’penny bit. But a shiny five pence coin, washed and wrapped in greaseproof paper, will signify money luck just as well.

Don’t forget to make a wish, while stirring the mixture three times in a clockwise direction. Keep it secret, or it won’t come true. Invite others to do the same — stirring a pudding mix makes arms ache, so it’s a crafty way of getting them to share the work.