Christmas pudding and brussels sprouts

As the Christmas season sneaks up on us, more and more people turn to Notes from the U.K. for help in understanding the link between brussels sprouts and Christmas. (I’ll get to the pudding in a minute. Be patient.) It started as early as October. Or maybe that was September. Who keeps track?

If you’re not British, you’re thinking, Christmas and brussels sprouts? That makes as much sense as Easter and birthday candles, or Hanukkah and ham.

But brussels sprouts are a traditional part of the British Christmas dinner. I’ve explained all this at length before, with (please, do remember where you are) varying degrees of accuracy and insanity. So instead of repeating myself, let me refer you to that great authority on all things British, me, for everything you need to know on the subject. And more. You’ll find it here and here and yes, even here.

Done? Seat belts fastened? Good, but before we move on I have to tell you that I recently got a link from a website that seems to have believed me when I wrote that the Druids worshipped the Great Brussels Sprout. That’ll learn me, as they said where I grew up. Or it should learn me, although it probably won’t.

For the record, if the Druids really did worship the Great Brussels Sprout, I don’t know about it and neither does anyone else. Very little’s actually known about the Druids, but since I made up that business about the sprouts, it’s a fairly safe bet that it’s not true.

I don’t know whether to collapse into a fit of giggles or a fit of shame. I really didn’t think I was in danger of being taken seriously.

You’re never in no danger of being taken seriously. If you don’t believe me, take a long, hard look at American politics.

Obviously relevant photo: This is the universal winter holiday penguin, worshipping the Great Brussels sprout. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, be patient. Winter’ll get to you eventually. Photo by Ida Swearingen. Fairly random cropping by me.


But let’s move on.

Every year, starting sometime in the fall, people all over Britain wake from their mental slumber, first in ones and twos, then in tens and twenties, and ask themselves an important question, Why do we eat brussels sprouts at Christmas? And some percentage of them are bothered enough to go online and type the question into their browsers.

Some subset of that group finds its way here, and each member of that subset registers as a tiny ping in my stats—the behind-the-scenes breakdown of semi-useful, completely addictive information that WordPress provides its bloggers. And that, my friends, is how I know what people worry about in this Brexiting nation. The mess that are Britain’s negotiations with the European Union? Nope. The prospect of a collapsing pound? Wrong again. The possibility of devastating economic shrinkage or the growth in immigrantophobia? Not those either.

Okay, how about the underfunding and endless reorganization of the National Health Service? No again.

They worry about brussels sprouts. As anyone would in that sort of situation.

Now, a lot of people will accept something as a traditional part of a meal just because it’s always been presented to them as a traditional part of the meal. That’s particularly true if they like the thing: They don’t ask why, they just eat. Take Christmas pudding. We eat that at Christmas because it’s Christmas pudding, they tell themselves. You can’t eat Christmas pudding all year long, can you?

What about itty-bitty mince pies? We eat those because they taste Christmassy. Don’t bother me with silly questions, just pass me the pies, ’cause I’d like another.

You can tell that’s not a genuine British quote because it doesn’t include a please. Or a thank you. And I’m sure for several other reasons, which you’re more than welcome to list in the Comments.

But sprouts are—well, they’re a kind of specialist’s food. If they were books, they’d be literary fiction instead of mass market. So every year, some number of sprout-hating people drag themselves out of their most-of-the-year-long serenity and ask, “Why do we do this anyway?”

And here I am, ready to answer.

The reason people are confused is that British Christmas tradition, as far as I’ve observed it, doesn’t explain itself (and keep in mind that I’m triply an outsider as an American and a Jew and an atheist, so I don’t get the final word on this). You just do things because that’s how they’re done. Talk about your religious mysteries.

That kind of approach leaves questions in people’s minds.

By way of comparison, take the Passover, where explanations are built into the tradition. The youngest child—it used to be the youngest boy and in some strands of belief still is—asks a series of questions and some designated adult (I forget which one) answers. Over and over, each year. Same damn questions. Same damn answers. The kid never learns. At the most traditional seder (that’s the ritualized Passover dinner) I ever went to, I wasn’t sure I’d live long enough for the meal to end, because every twitch of the fork needed an explanation.

Why is this night different from all other nights? Because we have all this food but we’re not eating it, we’re reading very long explanations out of a book.

Okay, I’m sure most families handle the seder with grace and joy and the food gets eaten before it’s older than the family members. My experience is absurdly limited. The point is that the holiday’s structured to teach its meanings and symbolism. No one walks away wondering, Yeah, but why matzo? Why salt water? They not only know, they’re tired of hearing about it.

Okay, that’s an assumption. Cup of salt, please. We’ll sprinkle it right here, since we need  salt water anyway.

But back to Christmas. I’m tired of explaining why brussels sprouts are part of the meal, so let’s go for a less predictable question this year: Why is Christmas pudding part of the meal?

Well, in the U.S., it’s not. All we know about the stuff is that Dickens wrote about it–and that’s only the people who read Dickens. As for the rest of the world, I’m betting the Christmas pudding’s a good way to measure how deep British influence goes in a culture. No Christmas pudding, minimal British influence. Let me know if I’m right, oh ye who live in countries that aren’t the U.S. or Britain.

Or if I’m wrong. That’s more fun anyway.

It turns out that Christmas pudding is the same as plum pudding. It also turns out that plum pudding doesn’t necessarily have any plums in it. Plum, in this case, means something-other-than-plums.

Are you with me? Pay attention here, because it’ll be on the test.

The Christmas pudding can be traced back to the 14th century, when it was a soup-like, porridgy thing called frumenty, made with beef or mutton plus raisins, currants, prunes, wines, and spices.

What’s porridge? (You only ask that if you’re not British.) It’s oats or some other cereal cooked in water or milk until it’s the texture of wallpaper paste. Mmmmmmmmmm. In Norwegian (sorry—Lord Google continues to offer me translations and I can’t help myself, I have to check) it’s called grot.

No comment.

Aw, go on, comment, Ellen. You know you want to: I love oatmeal, but only the stuff you make with thick-cut oats. The British, though, are addicted to fine-cut oats, which make the wallpapery stuff. They’ve even discovered that if they soak the oats overnight it’ll be even gluier. What can I tell you? It’s one of those cultural differences that make our world so interesting.

But back to frumenty: It was a fasting meal.

A what? Doesn’t fasting mean not eating? No. It’s kind of like plum pudding not meaning a pudding with plums. You could eat during a fast, but you couldn’t enjoy yourself, because all the good stuff was off the menu.

At the time we’re talking about, you got to Christmas by way of a month of fasting during Advent, and frumenty was something you ate during that month. It sounds horrible to me, but it’s full of things that would’ve been expensive back then—spices, dried fruit, wine. Not to mention meat (that may have been meat or fat or broth; I’ve read a number of sources and recipes and it all gets a little murky here), which the poor didn’t have even if they weren’t fasting. So I’m guessing this is deprivation eating for the rich.

By way of total transparency, the frumenty recipes I looked at include wheat, milk, sugar, and other stuff that’s not in the various lists of medieval frumenty ingredients. They also leave out the meat or fat, although stock is optional in some. So these would be the modern versions.

Skip forward to the almost-16th century and we find that frumenty’s morphed into a plum pudding, made with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit, and wine or beer. By 1640, it was a standard Christmas dessert and it tasted good enough for the Puritans to ban it, along with Yule logs, Christmas carols, nativity scenes, iPhones, and fun.

Or that’s one version of the tale. Another goes like this:

“Christmas pudding has its roots in medieval English sausages, when fat, spices and fruits (the best preservatives of their day) were mixed with meats, grains and vegetables and packed into animal stomachs and intestines so they would keep as long as possible. The first records of plum puddings date to the early 15th century, when ‘plum pottage,’ a savory concoction heavy on the meat and root vegetables, was served at the start of a meal. Then as now, the ‘plum’ in plum pudding was a generic term for any dried fruit—most commonly raisins and currants, with prunes and other dried, preserved or candied fruit added when available. By the end of the 16th century, dried fruit was more plentiful in England and plum pudding made the shift from savory to sweet. The development of the pudding cloth—a floured piece of fabric that could hold and preserve a pudding of any size—further freed the pudding from dependence on animal products (but not entirely: suet, the fat found around beef and mutton kidneys, has always been a key ingredient).”

Why does the plum in plum pudding mean things that aren’t plums? Because this is English we’re dealing with. Ask for a fruit scone in Britain and you’ll get a scone with raisins. Why don’t they call it a raisin scone? Because it’s called a fruit scone.

Feel like you’ve just gone in circles? It could be worse. Try asking why Britain’s called Britain. (Sorry, I’m referring you to that renowned expert, myself, again.)

In 1714, with the Puritans safely out of power, King George reestablished the Christmas pudding as an end to the Christmas dinner. He became known as the pudding king, which may or may not be a better than being called Ivan the Terrible.

All sorts of religious symbolism has been woven into various elements of the pudding over the years. Why do you pour brandy over the top, turn off the lights, and light the brandy? Because it symbolizes Jesus’ love and power.

Uh huh. And incidentally because it’s very pretty. And because you get to add a little more brandy to an already very boozy dessert.

I won’t go through all they symbolism. I suspect most of them aren’t passed down anymore—they’re something you have to look up online, or maybe hear from your mother who vaguely remembers, or possibly misremembers, what great-great-aunt Hetty used to say.

But whatever you celebrate at this time of year—if you celebrate anything—remember to eat all your Christmas pudding or you don’t get any brussels sprouts.

And if you need to know anything about Britain, just ask me. I don’t actually know much, but I can fill page after virtual page telling you that.

Maybe next year we’ll dig out the true history of the mince pie.

A foreigner’s guide to Christmas in Britain

You can say anything you want about the meaning of Christmas, but I’ll tell you what the meaning is here: brussels sprouts.

What? you ask.

At Christmas dinner, you eat brussels sprouts. Even if you don’t touch them for another 364 days, you put one on your plate and chop it into pieces and poke at it so it looks like some part of it entered your stomach and is becoming one with your body. It doesn’t seem to be a law, but it’s a very powerful cultural imperative. And when someone uses a fancy phrase like cultural imperative, you’d damn well better do it.

Christmas pudding with flaming brandy. Photo by James Scott-Brown, on Wikimedia.

Christmas pudding with flaming brandy. Photo by James Scott-Brown, on Wikimedia.

The brussels sprout is so completely symbolic of Christmas that D. and D. just gave us a box of chocolate brussels sprouts for a Christmas present. Rest easy, though, because they’re purely symbolic. No vegetables were harmed in the making of the candy.

Why is a round green vegetable synonymous with Christmas? Because they grow through the fall and by Christmas they’re ready to eat. And if you’ve got a vegetable so cooperative that you can harvest it in the winter, you’d better include it in the holiday meal. Even if you hate it.

Christmas also involves crackers. Not the crumbly kind you eat with cheese, but rolls of shiny paper and cardboard with bad jokes and riddles, a little plastic present of some kind (about what you used to find in a box of Cracker Jacks, if you’ve ever seen those), and a tissue-paper crown inside. The way to open these is to pick yours up when everyone else does, cross your arms so you can simultaneously offer yours to the person on one side and seize the one the person on the other side is offering you. Then, in unison, everyone pulls and the crackers tear open and spill out their giftlets.  Inevitably, someone ends up with two short ends and no goodies, and if you’re over the age of five you redistribute the riches and everyone ends up with, at the very least, a silly paper crown to put on his or her head. Then everyone who can’t avoid it (and I usually can) reads the jokes and riddles out loud.

In the spirit of Nothing Exceeds like Excess, Christmas demands two desserts: a Christmas pudding and a Christmas cake. The cake is a heavy fruitcake that’s been soaked in brandy for two months and coated in not one layer of icing but two, one of marzipan and another made with egg whites and sugar. The double dose of icing is enough to send even a non-diabetic into a diabetic coma, and that’s without the cake. The pudding, again, has dried fruit and alcohol, but this time with suet and spices and a bunch of other stuff—you’ll have to look up the recipe online if you’re interested, because I’ve never made one—and then it’s steamed (this is why I’ve never made it: I can’t be arsed, as our much-missed friend B. used to say) and soaked in yet more alcohol for a month or so. If you need a bit more in the way of excess, you can serve it with rum or brandy sauce, or with custard, and you can also serve it with flaming brandy if you promise not to set the house on fire.