My grandmother made Christmas puddings for her family — five daughters and numerous friends — for something close to sixty years. For seven or eight of these years I helped: I used to go up to Sault Ste. Marie at Thanksgiving, and we would make cake and roasts and Christmas puddings. The year after my grandmother passed away, I thought: I would like to take up this tradition. I like Christmas puddings, and I liked the thought of continuing to make them for my aunts and close friends.
My relatives sent me their pudding basins last week, so I bought the ingredients — sultanas, raisins, dried currants, prunes, glacé cherries, candied mixed peel, almonds, breadcrumbs, flour, baking powder, brown and white sugar, spices, molasses and golden syrup, eggs, butter, brandy, beer — and mixed them up in a large plastic tub. (My grandmother used to use an old baby bath; I inherited her wooden spoons, but declined the bath.)
Traditionally puddings are made on “Stir up Sunday,” the last Sunday before Advent in the Anglican calendar (the collect or prayer for the day is “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may be plenteously rewarded”); again, traditionally everyone in the household is supposed to give a stir of the mixture before the puddings are boiled. I live by myself, and was anyway making them in advance as I am seeing most of my relatives this weekend and wanted to have the puddings ready to give them, but a friend came by and gave it a stir for luck.
You put the mixture in the basins, tie them up with tin foil and muslin, and then you boil them for hours. The biggest pudding took me six and a half hours, the smallest an hour and a half. As I had nine to boil and small pots, this took me a couple of days. Once cooked, they are good for months or years.
On Christmas day, one pulls out the basin, boils it another few hours, turns it out on a plate. Then one heats up brandy (or vodka, which burns longer), pours the steaming alcohol over the pudding — which might have a piece of holly in the top, if one happens to have some — turns out all the lights — lights the brandy — and carries the flaming pudding ceremoniously to the feast. We sing “O bring us a figgy pudding” and eat it with custard.
This, to me, is Christmas, which I anticipate more wholesomely now than the stores: Fire in the heart of winter, family, connections stretching back half a century in my family alone, and centuries back before then — this is obviously a variation of a medieval dish, its ingredients a litany of legendary travels — merriment, celebrating the Incarnation through the uplifting of earthly delights, singing with paper crowns on our heads.