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Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Did your ancestors eat Christmas pudding ?

Stodgy or Fruity? : The Stirring Tale of the Christmas Pud

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Plum pudding was very likely to be found on the Christmas table of most of our families throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With its stodge and fruit, it represented the warmth and wholesomeness of   British culinary tradition. But, the secret of its huge appeal probably lay in three of its more unusual elements: its spices  (a nod to the exoticism of the British Empire), the likelihood that it contained alcohol (rum or brandy were popular additions in non-teetotal households), and the silver coins or charms that might have been stirred into the mixture (guaranteed to provide a happy diversion on Christmas Day). 

Victorian Christmas Card: Wikimedia Commons

Puddings for all Classes

Even if times were hard, it seems, our ancestors rarely missed out on their   pudding at Christmas time. Families scrimped and saved for ingredients with one mid-Victorian newspaper commenting that a poor woman might be seen on Christmas Eve, ‘standing outside a pawnbroker’s shop, with three flat irons, an ancient engraving figurative of a harvest-home, and her husband’s Sunday waistcoat, - all of which goods and chattels she is prepared to make over to the usurer by way of mortgage, that she may obtain the needful purchase money for the ingredients of her Christmas pudding.’ The Falkirk Herald, December 29th, 1853 (Quoting The Times newspaper of the same week).
Pudding even turned up on the Christmas table of otherwise cheerless State-run institutions in the nineteenth century provoking the same journalist to quip that, ‘we shut a man and his wife up in the workhouse, carefully separating them for twelve months, but on Christmas Day, we give to each of them a large wedge of plum pudding, as a set off against the discomfort of the year.’

Meanwhile, in private business and on large estates, plum pudding, was the gift of choice by many employers to their workforces. The Nottingham Review and General Advertiser of December 30th 1831, was typical in its commendation of a local businessman: ‘William Brodhurst Esq of Newark…[who]. on Monday, regaled the whole of his workmen and their wives with plenty of roast beef and plum pudding.’ And this benevolent distribution of pudding was exemplified by Queen Victoria who always handed out pudding to the tenants of her estate at Osborne house on Christmas Eve:
‘The names of the children were read out, each child receiving a present, and there was great fun as they bowed and curtseyed very funnily, the schoolmaster keeping each one back to see they did it properly. They came by three times, first for their presents, then for the pieces of plum pudding and lastly for the ornaments cut off the tree. Then a few of the men and women off the estate came by for plum pudding.Tuesday 24th December, 1867 Queen Victoria’s Journals Online

Victorian Postcard by Charles Green - Wikimedia Commons

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So popular was the Christmas pudding that by the end of the nineteenth century the total amount of ingredients used nationwide were humorously calculated as follows:

‘We think that we are well within the mark when we state that in this country alone, 4,000,000 puddings are prepared for Christmas Day, each of which will average 4 ¼ lbs in weight. The national plum pudding, therefore, weighs just about 7,589 tons; to compose it you must take 2628 tons of raisins, 892 tons of currants and the same quantity of mixed peel, of breadcrumbs and suet 1339 tons each, some 500,000 pints of brandy and 32,000000 eggs.’ Edinburgh Evening News 14th December 1898. 

Puddings for the Empire

By the last decade of the nineteenth century, even if  your ancestors worked or served overseas, they might still have enjoyed a traditional Christmas pudding. As the epitome of Britishness – and because they had a long shelf-life – thousands of tins of pudding were sent out to the colonies of the Empire, particularly India and Australia, by relatives and friends.

In the late 1920s, there was another twist to the idea of Imperial Pudding. At a food exhibition at Olympia in 1926, Princess Marie-Louise came up with the idea of making an imperial pudding using ingredients from around the empire. The first suggested recipe included Canadian flour, Australian or South African raisins, Australian sultanas, Australian currants, English or Scottish beef suet, Indian pudding spice and Jamaican rum. So far so good, but, in fact, the recipe sparked fury from those countries, such as New Zealand, which had either not been represented at all or which had, like India, been underrepresented in terms of ingredients. To rectify this, a new recipe, devised at short notice by the Empire Marketing Board, included minced apple from Canada, Demerara sugar from the West Indies, eggs from the Irish Free State, cinnamon from Ceylon, cloves from Zanzibar, brandy from Cyprus and rum from Jamaica!

Puddings for the Military and the Navy

In 1853, The Times reported that ‘the soldiers and sailors of Queen Victoria eat their Christmas pudding to a man; it is the necessary condition of our national safety.’ And pudding – reassuring, patriotic and sustaining - continued to be associated with the military throughout the whole of the following century. .

In the First World War, Christmas pudding was an important constituent in Christmas parcels sent to the troops since its associations with home were considered to boost morale. Up and down the country, local newspapers organised campaigns to send tinned pudding to troops that had been recruited from their area. In some cases, these wartime plum puddings might provide an unusual way back into finding your ancestors. This is because when individual soldiers wrote in thanks for their puddings, their letters sometimes appeared in local newspapers. A letter to The Burton Daily Mail of 21st February 1917 from GR Ford, Shoeing Smith, Royal Field Artillery of 93 Waterloo Street, Burton, for example, sums up the delight with which this gifts were received. ‘I now take the pleasure of acknowledging receipt of your most welcome Christmas pudding, which I was so pleased to receive. I and my friends enjoyed the pudding so much.’  

The stirring of the Christmas pudding continued to be a much celebrated ritual on all HMS Ships and at Naval establishments long after the end of both World Wars. In 1952, with rationing still uppermost in the minds of many, the ‘mammoth’ puddings made at HMS Condor, at Arbroath in Scotland attracted particular attention in the press. Weighing in at 40lb in total and using 130 eggs, these puddings also included 160 specially sterilised silver three-penny bits, rather than coins made from cupro-nickel (which when mixed with fruit were deemed to produce an unpleasant taste). Sailors who served at the station  received an 8 oz portion of pudding, and the names of those few chosen to stir the enormous barrels of mixture with ‘carley raft paddles’, appeared in the local press.

Wikimedia Commons

A Recipe in Flux

It’s fun to imagine that  - on some sensory and emotional level - you will in some way  be ‘connecting’ with your ancestors when you taste your pudding this Christmas. But recipes for plum puddings have suffered some variation over the decades and have certainly not tasted (nor indeed looked) the same for each generation of our ancestors.
The common adulteration of flour in the 1860s, for example, meant that some mid-Victorian puddings were pretty tasteless  And there were other intermittent historical factors that affected the composition of puddings. In 1922, a disaster abroad caused the following startling headline to appear in many British newspapers: CHRISTMAS PUDDING MAY HAVE TO BE MADE WITHOUT RAISINS! The source of the problem was a huge fire which had devastated the commercial centre of the port town of Smyrna (located in present day Turkey) ruining the entire 80-100.000 tonnes of raisins for export. Mr McVittie, Honorary Secretary of the British Chamber of Commerce in the town, commented,  ‘English Christmas puddings will have to be made without raisins this year, unless people can afford to pay fabulous prices for them. A result of the fire was a rise today in the price of currants from Greece.’  The Portsmouth Evening News, 16th September 1922.

In the years of the Second World War, few Christmas puddings were made at home because of rationing. Keen to keep up the tradition and for it not to become a treat only for the very rich, The Ministry of Food, with the voluntary agreement of food manufacturers, introduced standardisation of sizes and prices for Christmas puddings within and without basins. In 1943, the prices of these standardised puddings ranged from 1 shilling 71/2d  for 2lb puddings without basins to 7 shillings for 4lb puddings in basins. (reported in The Gloucester Citizen 15th December 1942)

The making of the annual Christmas pudding might have tested the ingenuity and stretched the resources of our ancestors over the years but it was a part of the festivities that they would rarely have done without, for after all, as the Times put it in 1853,  ‘This savoury compound… is the very foundation of Anglo-Saxon civilization.’ December 29th, 1853.

Ready to eat: Wikimedia Commons

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Further Reading and useful websites

Connelly, Mark, Christmas: A Social History,  I. B. Tauris, Rpt, 2012.

Hopley, Claire, The History of Christmas Food and Feast. Remember When, 2009

Lewis, E. G. All Things Christmas: The History and Traditions of Advent and Christmas CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.

Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance. Dover Publications, 1976.

Kaori O’Connor, “The King’s Christmas Pudding: Globalization, Recipes, and the Commodities of Empire” (Journal of Global History, Vol. 4, 2009, pp. 127–155). 

This article first appeared in Family Tree Magazine UK 2015

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