I recently made a big move across the pond, and have spent the last six months adjusting to life as an expat. I realize every day I still have a long way to go! A recent trip to Wimpole Hall’s Christmas Craft Fair introduced me to a sixpence for the Christmas pudding. I have heard of the Christmas pudding, but I was unaware of the history of the pudding or the significance of the sixpence. It may seem at first glance pretty straight forward, but there is a bit more to the tradition than what is presented on the table at the end of Christmas dinner.
One thing you realize early when living in England is the term pudding is generally used for dessert, which often covered in a warm custard. Christmas puddings, however, originally date back to the 14th century when they were a porridge called “frumenty.” Frumenty was composed of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines, and spices and had the consistency of a soup.
By 1595, breadcrumbs, eggs, and dried fruit became a part of the mixture along with beer and spirits. The recipe continued to change until during the Victorian Era, when the Christmas pudding finally became what it is today.
So, what exactly is a traditional Christmas pudding? A mixture of suet (beef or mutton fat), breadcrumbs, spices, sugar, dried fruit, nuts, rum, barley wine, stout, and eggs are mixed and left overnight in a bowl. Flour is added on the next day, and the mixture is packed into a dish lined with parchment paper before steaming for a whopping eight hours.
Christmas puddings are traditionally made on “stir-up Sunday,” the Sunday before the beginning of Advent (30 November of this year). According to several sources, this is due to the Collect of the day in the Book of Common Prayer that says, “”Stir-up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Another reason for preparing the Christmas pudding so far in advance could be the improvement with age. I have heard from a good friend that the best Christmas puddings are left to sit for a month before Christmas. If you consult a calendar, Stir-up Sunday gives the Christmas pudding exactly a month.
When serving this dessert, the custom is to top the finished pudding with a sprig of holly, said to represent Jesus’ Crown of Thorns worn during the crucifixion. Holly was also thought at one time to bring good luck and have healing properties, perhaps indicating a wish for luck and health during the new year?
The final preparation before the pudding is served is to top it with Brandy or another flammable alcohol and light it on fire to symbolize Jesus’ power and love.
Just as we have our own traditions of luck and wishes during the holidays, the Christmas pudding has its own. At one time, it was a ritual for every family member to give the pudding a stir and make a wish, but the longstanding tradition seems to be the sixpence mixed into the pudding itself—the finder of the coin receiving luck for the year to come.
Why a sixpence? It is believed a pea or bean was originally used, followed by a silver farthing or a penny, changing over time to a threepenny bit, and then a sixpence. Perhaps the changes are due to the types of coins available as well as the value. Sixpence coins were withdrawn from circulation in 1971, and were no longer legal tender as of 1980, illustrating one coin that will eventually be replaced in the custom due to the difficulty in obtaining one. The modern coin used in place of the sixpence is a five pence.
There are various other “tokens” or “favours” to be found in Christmas puddings, and depending upon the article and the person, each can have several meanings. I found one article that indicated the sixpence represented wealth in the coming year. Another article said a “Bachelor’s Button” and indicated the man would be a bachelor for the next year—same for the “Spinster’s Thimble,” yet another site claimed the thimble represented thrift. Regardless of the meanings, there are various tokens (button, thimble, boot, anchor, wishbone) which can also be included depending upon the family’s traditions, but the sixpence is the most common.
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