In one week those living in the USA will celebrate Thanksgiving Day. It will also be the official start of the holiday (i.e., Christmas) season. In reality, though, the holiday shopping season began in mid-July as stores put out decorations and crafts ideas for gifts to be made. Many people have been griping about seeing peppermint canes and holly wreaths while shopping for swimsuits or pumpkins but I am one of those who delights in seeing the Christmas cheer on display, even when the temperatures are over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
As we become fully entrenched in the holiday season, carols will be played and one of the more popular ones has a verse that implores…”So bring us some figgy pudding, so bring us some figgy pudding, so bring us some figgy pudding and put it right here.” Savory puddings are less well known than their sweet counterparts but savory puddings like figgy pudding are actually not only older but why the community of mankind survived the ages. The modern usage of the word pudding id used to denote primarily desserts however the word pudding is believed to come from the French “boudin”, originally from the Latin “botellus”, meaning “small sausage”, referring to encased meats. The meats were encased in animal intestines to preserve them; such preservation meant the meats could be kept longer and thus provided sustenance during hard times or when one could not go hunting.
The first record of plum or figgy pudding dates back to the fifteenth century when records indicate a plum pottage or mash was served at the beginning of the meal. Plum was a generic term used to indicate any dried fruit and the fruits were combined with meat and root vegetables. Commonly dried fruit of the period were raisins, currants, and prunes. By the end of the sixteenth century, dried fruit was more plentiful and the plum or figgy pudding became more sweet than savory. Pudding cloths became popular as the concoction would be wrapped in the cloth and no longer needed to depend on animal fat to hold together. It is most likely that such is the early beginnings of dishes like the Scottish haggis and Pennsylvania Dutch hog maw – both savory casseroles prepared in either intestines or the lining from a pig’ stomach.
In 1647 the figgy pudding was so closely associated with the Christmas holidays that Prime Minister Oliver Cromwell had it banned. The Puritanical Cromwell felt such harkened back to the Druids, paganism, and idolatry. In 1660 when the English monarchy was restored, so were the traditions of Yule logs, nativity scenes,, Christmas carols, and the figgy pudding. The Victorian era saw the figgy pudding achieve a position of prominence, thanks in no small part to Charles Dickens. The first Christmas savings clubs were created to help poor housewives save for the figgy or Christmas pudding ingredients. In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the last Sunday before the Advent season contained a prayer that began “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people” and became known as “Stir-Up Sunday”. Family members would take turn stirring the Christmas pudding which was then wrapped and boiled and set aside to mature until Christmas Day. By the nineteenth century the traditional figgy pudding had become more of what we today call fruitcake, a mixture of brown sugar, raisins, currants, candied fruit, breadcrumbs, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, suet, and alcohol.
The Victorian citizens, the Christmas pudding was an analogy for their world view. The British Empire consisted of savory bits from distant colonies all bound together by a settled atmosphere of All that was considered to be English. One advantage of the Christmas pudding was the time it took to season and cure as well as the lengthy time it lasted. This meant that soldiers deployed in far-off lands could enjoy this taste of home even if it took almost a year to receive it.
I don’t mind the appearance of Christmas in July simply because I think it is always time to spread Christmas cheer. Sadly, too often today our Christmas puddings are made in molds rather than the more organic shapes of the past. While I admire the beauty of such molds, I do wonder if they serve to divide us instead of bringing us together. We grow a community with the sharing of Christmas cheer and yet, if we expect that community to be perfect or everyone to fit in a mold, then we are self-defeating.
In growing a community we need to stir-up our diversities and celebrate our common denominators in solidifying our future. The 1848 satirical cartoon once entitled “John Bull Showing the Foreign Powers How to Make a Constitutional Plum Pudding” seems sadly appropriate for our
modern times. The cartoon illustration revealed a person preparing to carve a bulging, holly-adorned pudding labeled “Liberty of the Press”, “Trial by Jury”, “Common Sense”, and “Order”.
Stir up, good people, the wills of your faith, so that they will bring forth the fruit of good works and therefore richly reward us all. When we grow community we help ourselves to hear the call of goodness and practice such service as will benefit us all. Whatever the weather or season, we need some figgy pudding, that combination of different things brought together for preservation and continuance of us all.