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History of Christmas Plum Pudding
1950's Christmas Card
Plum pudding is a classic English dessert, traditionally served at Christmastime. Like fruitcake, plum pudding keeps forever and is very heavy dessert. Like fruitcake it is frull of spices, raisins, nuts and candied fruit. Plum pudding also usually contains bread cubes, milk and suet.
Plum Pudding dates back to at least 1670, but an earlier version dates back to the early part of the 1600’s. This pudding was not molded and was just mutton broth that had been thickened with raisins, spices and brown bread. The version had more of the texture of a modern day pudding than the thick, heavy plum pudding that came later.
During the Victorian era and later plum pudding was very popular in the United States and many households made the dessert themselves. The dessert is actually rather labor intensive; seeds needs to be removed from raisings, the currants removed from their stems and washed, nuts to be shelled and cuts, oranges and lemons must be peeled and then the peels must be candied.
It is a custom for every member of a household to take a turn at stirring the pudding, which is made several weeks before Christmas. While stirring the pudding each person was supposed to make a wish. At the same time several small tokens are stirred into the mixture, traditionally these were a coin, button, thimble and ring. Whoever found the coin in their portion of pudding would gain wealth in the new year. The button meant bachelorhood, the thimble meant spinsterhood and the ring symbolized a wedding. There could be other tokens added but these are the most common.
turn of the century Christmas card
turn of century Christmas card
After everything is mixed together, the pudding is placed in a container or a cloth bag and then steamed fore several hours, at least. The suet keeps the pudding from getting too dry and indeed if the pudding does get dry a new dose of steaming will soften it up. Brandy or whiskey can also be poured on the pudding from time to time to keep it moist.
One thing that plum pudding does not contain is plum and the there is some argument about whether or not they ever did. The early pudding version might have had cut-up plums in it, but more than likely the plum is referring to the swelling up of the pudding as it is cooked.
Up until the end of the Victorian Era most plum puddings were made at home, but eventually local bakeries started producing the dessert and by the Edwardian Era factory produced plum puddings were becoming more common.
early 20th century card by Ellen Clapsaddle
Puddings were not always made in advance, sometimes there were produced on Christmas Day as in this excerpt from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
The rest of the meal has been eaten and Mrs. Cratchit has gone to get the dessert.
Now Mrs. Cratchit left the room along—too nervous to bear witnesses—to take the pudding up, and bring it in. Suppose it should not be done enough! Suppose it should break in turning out! Suppose somebody should have stolen it, while they were merry with goose—a supposition at which the two young Cratchits became livid!
Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered-flushed, but smiling proudly—with the pudding, like a speckled cannonball, blazing in ignited brandy, with Christmas holly stuck into the top.
Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs. Cratchit said that, now the weight was off er mind, she would confess she had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for so large a family. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint as such a thing.