Last Christmas I was in Athens, and had been kindly invited by friends to spend Christmas with them and their families at their home. I asked them what I could bring to contribute, and they told me just to bring something for the table. Well, wine is never in short supply at my place, and I dug out two suitable bottles of Saint-Estèphe. But this was somehow not enough. My hosts would be slaving away over a hot stove, and I would eat the fruits of their labour without any effort on my part. What could I bring that would show my appreciation and affection, from my country, from my tradition? I decided on that most British of dishes, the traditional Christmas pudding. It would be a struggle, but I would gather the ingredients and cook, and do my best.
As it happens, it was not a struggle at all. I was in Greece and most of the ingredients were at hand. Almonds, apples, candied orange peel, oranges themselves (for the zest), raisins, flour (I prefer Limnos flour anyway), breadcrumbs, eggs and brandy. All available here naturally in Greece, most of it from the market or local shops. What was missing? Brown sugar and nutmeg, but common enough to find. Suet – the raw, hard fat of beef found the kidneys, dried and shredded – which can be bought dried in packets in the UK was not easy to find, so I substituted this with butter, French butter, which worked well enough, and was marginally more healthy.
But then I found my thinking how did this most traditional of British puddings come about when the most defining of the ingredients, the oranges, the raisins, the spices could never be grown or found in the UK. Why did it become so British?
Well, like many British Christmas traditions, it comes from the Victorian era, and in fact from that most beautiful of books, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Here is the scene where the Cratchit family welcome the pudding, after it had been steaming in the laundry kettle for many hours:
Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered—flushed, but smiling proudly—with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.
After the publication of this story, the pudding became the iconic centre of the British Christmas feast. Indeed it became in the words of one contemporary anthropologist the “king and pride of British cooks, the Christmas plum-pudding [which has no plums by the way], which foreigners vainly attempt to imitate.” But remove the foreign ingredients what are you left with? Unsweetened apple dumplings. The ‘foreigners’ had the ingredients and ‘free’ trade – at least the British Empire version of it which was hardly without its dark side – that enabled the British to tuck into the flaming globe on Christmas day. It hardly needs saying I hope that these ingredients were transported to the mother country of Victorian England by the British merchant fleet, the largest in the world at the time.
But so many of our national traditions incorporate different cultures – as well as ingredients – having been absorbed along the way. Christmas trees? Decorations? Turkey? All from far away places, and blended into our own ways of doing things wherever we happen to be.
My own personal traditions are mostly solitary. I like to listen to the ceremony of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College, Cambridge on the BBC on Christmas Eve afternoon. It has many dubious overtones of the lost ‘empire’ that enabled the creation of the Christmas pudding, outdated these days, but it still brings me a nostalgic comfort with memories of times in England around the coal fire as darkness fell, a peaceful pause in the hectic preparations leading up to midnight and beyond.
I also read A Christmas Carol every year. Last year however, in a break from tradition, I listened to an audiobook as I was cooking the pudding. It was wonderful, and as I sat on the sofa with a glass of red wine (I had a lot of Saint-Estèphe last year) I revelled in Christmases past, present and future.
There is one passage in particular that left tears in my eyes. I will not repeat it here, but it was so full of joy, of love, of chaos, of fun, of children that I cried for my Christmases past as a child, for the ones I would never have with my own children, and for those I hope to have again with my nieces and nephews, and their children in time to come. I went to bed on Christmas Eve, full of love, melancholy, warmth, and loneliness.
The next day arrived and I warmed up the Christmas pudding again, and having dressed myself up smartly set off for the lunch. My friends – a couple who have since married – had both their families there, his – Greek, our hosts; hers – Egyptian parents who brought up all their children in Athens. Grandparents, aged uncles and aunts, brothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives, boyfriends and neighbours all put in an appearance. And me, with my two bottles of French wine and a Christmas pudding that had been welcomed with some curiosity by my hosts, wondering whether my efforts were such a good idea.
But what food they had prepared! And what great company! I need not have worried. And then the karaoke started, with the host on the keyboard, and me – merry with the drink, the company, the food – singing away.
But then the time for the pudding came. I heated up the brandy – Greek – in the μπρίκι (briki) usually used to make Greek coffee, and poured it over the pudding, and lit it. It burst into flames (δόξα τω θεώ) and everyone congratulated it. And ate it too.
I am not sure whether it was the amount of brandy I poured over the pudding, or the goodwill, or the love the company had for each other, but the fun we had afterwards, the dancing, the singing, the jokes, the laughter filled me almost to bursting point. I left full of joy and love, and also with that sweet sadness you have when the time comes to leave a place of such happiness. It left a deep impression on me.
This year I will travelling to be in England for Christmas Day, and will see as many of my family as I can, including four of my nephews, and – special joy! – the newest one, my godson. I am going laden with good things from Greece – of course! – but also taking what I have here in myself and adding it to the good things there, food, wine, thoughts, experiences, to make better experiences and new memories. The members of my family I will not see will be spread out not only over the country but over other continents, sharing the same but different versions of the things that their places and families bring. Also present will be the traditions of my ancestors – the British and the French – and their memories and legacies. All will combine as the globe approaches the completion of another orbit around the sun, the year end.
The Christmas pudding – a global symbol of the world’s plenty that became British – combined the ingredients of many places to become something new, something of the place. Last year, I created a new version and shared it with my friends, and it became part of something unique as well.
There is something in all of this about us as a human family, as a global community, about sharing our different foods, resources and experiences. But it’s both too obvious and too personal to extrapolate into generalisms. Every Christmas pudding is unique in it’s making, as is every family – whether traditional or made up of unconnected people that find themselves together – that sits down to feast and celebrate together. Celebrate that joy, remember the lonely and isolated, the sick and elderly, and bring them something of the spice of life – unique to us a species – and not only just at this time of year.
The story of A Christmas Carol – its timelessness – comes from its conclusion, describing Scrooge after the visitation of the spirits:
He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
May your own heart laugh, and in laughing bring joy to others. God knows the world needs even this simple thing enough these days.