“You’ve got the brandy? And the match?” my mom asks my dad as they walk into the dining room, where all their children sit in darkness.
I realize that for many, this scene sounds odd, and maybe a little confusing. But for us, this is a crucial part of a traditional Christmas evening.
Every year, after the plates from Christmas dinner are cleared away, our bellies stuffed full, the crackers pulled, and the wine bottles empty, one beloved activity still remains: lighting the Christmas pudding.
My mom carries into the dark room a beautiful, edible globe, rounded and smooth. Made over a month earlier, this labor-intensive dessert has been carefully wrapped in parchment paper and stored in a tin, awaiting its shining debut.
She sets the ball on the table and we all watch, in reverent silence, as my dad pours a generous amount of good brandy over the top. Then, he lights a match—and this is when Christmas really begins.
He holds the match close enough to the ball that the brandy catches it, and it begins to flame, becoming a glorious meteor at our dinner table. We breathe in the smell of clove, raisins, and brandy, which to us feels like home and belonging.
This round little globe, topped with a holly leaf, served on tiny plates with heavy cream, is what makes our Christmas complete.
History of Christmas Pudding
When you grow up in America with English parents, there are things about you that are naturally bound to be different. In the third grade, when I said my favorite part of Christmas was lighting our pudding on fire, I’m sure my teacher was more than a little bewildered—as was I when I learned that none of my classmates did this in their homes.
But the ritual of Christmas pudding is not unique to our family. This finale to a Christmas feast has long been a central figure of English Christmases.
Christmas pudding originated as early as the 1400s, according to English Heritage, a website dedicated to preserving the nation’s stories and historic places. In the earliest recipes, the pudding was viewed as more of a savory starter, made with broth, raisins, meat or meat stock, and spices. It was often served in porridge form.
The pudding that graces our modern table, and others in homes across England, was made famous during the Victorian Era. This version is made with sugar, flour, spices, and dried fruits (known as “plum,” though the recipe has never actually called for plums); shaped into a sphere with a pudding mold and seasoned for a month. If properly stored, it can last for two years.
Made popular by figures like Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, and Prince Albert, the pudding became something of a national symbol by the mid-1800s. The dessert is traditionally topped with a holly leaf, thought by many to represent a crown of thorns, and set on fire, to represent the passion of the Christ.
How We Make It
Traditionally, Christmas pudding is made on Stir Up Sunday, the Sunday before Advent begins. Every member of the family is meant to stir the pudding from east to west, to represent the journey of the Magi to see Jesus.
The phrase “Stir Up Sunday” is derived from a phrase in the Book of Common Prayer: “Stir up, we beseech thee, oh Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”
For me, the most challenging part of stirring up the pudding is resisting the temptation to taste the batter, my mouth watering as I watch each member of my family then take his or her turn.
After letting the batter rest for 24 hours, it is transferred to a pudding basin lined with parchment paper and boiled for about six hours. It is then stored in a cool, dry place until it is reheated on Christmas Day.
Continuing the Tradition
My older sister was the first of our siblings to get married. She dated Mike for five years before she married him, and in that time, discussion of our Christmas pudding tradition came up more than once.
Mike was mystified, then curious, as he learned about this ritual. As their first Christmas as a married couple approached, he talked about how intrigued he was to see the flaming pudding for himself.
That Christmas, we dimmed the lights, reclining in our seats, claiming we couldn’t eat another bite. My mom brought in the pudding; my dad doused it with brandy and lit the match.
We’ll never know if what happened next was brought on by spontaneous joy at seeing the spectacle for the first time, or from a seed one of the siblings had planted jokingly along the way. But as soon as the pudding caught fire, Mike began to sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” with enthusiastic gusto.
My siblings and I looked at each other, first confused, then smiling. Song had never been a part of this Christmas tradition. But Mike’s singing was so genuinely passionate that none of us felt we could let him sing alone.
So, with a shrug, we joined him. All of us sang the three verses of the song as the flames licked the pudding.
It is a tradition we have continued every year since. This year, my daughter says she can’t wait to “sing around the pudding fire.”
Maybe that’s the real joy of a tradition: its ability to change and accommodate generations as they grow and evolve.
From a savory pudding to a sweet dessert, Christmas pudding has stayed alive and cherished because of its ability to adapt. In our family, it has gone from a favorite dessert to the most anticipated event, where we join together in song around the flames—making room in our bellies and our hearts for one more thing.
If you’d like to make this pudding a part of your own Christmas tradition, I’ve included a family recipe. Christmas, after all, is all about making room.
Makes 1 pudding
- 16 ounces dried fruit (raisins, currants, sultanas)
- 2 ounces pitted dates, chopped
- 2 ounces candied peel
- 3 ounces candied cherries
- 1 small apple, peeled and chopped
- Zest of one orange
- Zest of one lemon
- 2 tablespoons orange juice
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 4 tablespoons of brandy
- 2 ounces white flour
- 4 ounces dark brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons mixed spice (such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg)
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 ounce chopped almonds
- 4 ounces vegetarian suet
- 4 ounces white breadcrumbs
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Combine the fruit, zest, juices, and brandy in a bowl. Stir well and cover with a tea towel. Leave in a cool place for 24 hours.
Combine the flour, brown sugar, mixed spice, and cinnamon in another bowl. Add the nuts, suet, and breadcrumbs. Stir in the fruit and juice mixture, as well as the beaten eggs, and combine well. Have every family member make a wish while they have a go stirring the pudding.
Grease a pudding basin and line it with parchment paper. Spoon the mixture into the basin. Cover with aluminum foil and tie with a string to hold it all together.
Place the pudding in a steamer set over a saucepan of simmering water. Steam for six hours. The pudding should be dark brown in color.
Remove the foil and allow to cool. When completely cooled, pour an extra tablespoon of brandy over the top.
Cover and wrap the pudding and basin with parchment paper and tie up with a string. Store in a cool, dry place until Christmas Day.
On Christmas Day, reheat in the microwave or by steaming for two hours.
To serve: Place pudding on a platter with a rim around the edge, to catch any excess brandy. Pour brandy over the top of the pudding. Tilt the platter so the brandy collects on one side, and light it. Sing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” as the flames flicker. Cut into small pieces and serve with heavy cream.
Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com