Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Did your ancestors eat Christmas pudding ?

Stodgy or Fruity? : The Stirring Tale of the Christmas Pud


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Plum pudding was very likely to be found on the Christmas table of most of our families throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With its stodge and fruit, it represented the warmth and wholesomeness of   British culinary tradition. But, the secret of its huge appeal probably lay in three of its more unusual elements: its spices  (a nod to the exoticism of the British Empire), the likelihood that it contained alcohol (rum or brandy were popular additions in non-teetotal households), and the silver coins or charms that might have been stirred into the mixture (guaranteed to provide a happy diversion on Christmas Day). 


Victorian Christmas Card: Wikimedia Commons

Puddings for all Classes

Even if times were hard, it seems, our ancestors rarely missed out on their   pudding at Christmas time. Families scrimped and saved for ingredients with one mid-Victorian newspaper commenting that a poor woman might be seen on Christmas Eve, ‘standing outside a pawnbroker’s shop, with three flat irons, an ancient engraving figurative of a harvest-home, and her husband’s Sunday waistcoat, - all of which goods and chattels she is prepared to make over to the usurer by way of mortgage, that she may obtain the needful purchase money for the ingredients of her Christmas pudding.’ The Falkirk Herald, December 29th, 1853 (Quoting The Times newspaper of the same week).
Pudding even turned up on the Christmas table of otherwise cheerless State-run institutions in the nineteenth century provoking the same journalist to quip that, ‘we shut a man and his wife up in the workhouse, carefully separating them for twelve months, but on Christmas Day, we give to each of them a large wedge of plum pudding, as a set off against the discomfort of the year.’

Meanwhile, in private business and on large estates, plum pudding, was the gift of choice by many employers to their workforces. The Nottingham Review and General Advertiser of December 30th 1831, was typical in its commendation of a local businessman: ‘William Brodhurst Esq of Newark…[who]. on Monday, regaled the whole of his workmen and their wives with plenty of roast beef and plum pudding.’ And this benevolent distribution of pudding was exemplified by Queen Victoria who always handed out pudding to the tenants of her estate at Osborne house on Christmas Eve:
‘The names of the children were read out, each child receiving a present, and there was great fun as they bowed and curtseyed very funnily, the schoolmaster keeping each one back to see they did it properly. They came by three times, first for their presents, then for the pieces of plum pudding and lastly for the ornaments cut off the tree. Then a few of the men and women off the estate came by for plum pudding.Tuesday 24th December, 1867 Queen Victoria’s Journals Online


Victorian Postcard by Charles Green - Wikimedia Commons


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So popular was the Christmas pudding that by the end of the nineteenth century the total amount of ingredients used nationwide were humorously calculated as follows:

‘We think that we are well within the mark when we state that in this country alone, 4,000,000 puddings are prepared for Christmas Day, each of which will average 4 ¼ lbs in weight. The national plum pudding, therefore, weighs just about 7,589 tons; to compose it you must take 2628 tons of raisins, 892 tons of currants and the same quantity of mixed peel, of breadcrumbs and suet 1339 tons each, some 500,000 pints of brandy and 32,000000 eggs.’ Edinburgh Evening News 14th December 1898. 

Puddings for the Empire

By the last decade of the nineteenth century, even if  your ancestors worked or served overseas, they might still have enjoyed a traditional Christmas pudding. As the epitome of Britishness – and because they had a long shelf-life – thousands of tins of pudding were sent out to the colonies of the Empire, particularly India and Australia, by relatives and friends.

In the late 1920s, there was another twist to the idea of Imperial Pudding. At a food exhibition at Olympia in 1926, Princess Marie-Louise came up with the idea of making an imperial pudding using ingredients from around the empire. The first suggested recipe included Canadian flour, Australian or South African raisins, Australian sultanas, Australian currants, English or Scottish beef suet, Indian pudding spice and Jamaican rum. So far so good, but, in fact, the recipe sparked fury from those countries, such as New Zealand, which had either not been represented at all or which had, like India, been underrepresented in terms of ingredients. To rectify this, a new recipe, devised at short notice by the Empire Marketing Board, included minced apple from Canada, Demerara sugar from the West Indies, eggs from the Irish Free State, cinnamon from Ceylon, cloves from Zanzibar, brandy from Cyprus and rum from Jamaica!

Puddings for the Military and the Navy

In 1853, The Times reported that ‘the soldiers and sailors of Queen Victoria eat their Christmas pudding to a man; it is the necessary condition of our national safety.’ And pudding – reassuring, patriotic and sustaining - continued to be associated with the military throughout the whole of the following century. .

In the First World War, Christmas pudding was an important constituent in Christmas parcels sent to the troops since its associations with home were considered to boost morale. Up and down the country, local newspapers organised campaigns to send tinned pudding to troops that had been recruited from their area. In some cases, these wartime plum puddings might provide an unusual way back into finding your ancestors. This is because when individual soldiers wrote in thanks for their puddings, their letters sometimes appeared in local newspapers. A letter to The Burton Daily Mail of 21st February 1917 from GR Ford, Shoeing Smith, Royal Field Artillery of 93 Waterloo Street, Burton, for example, sums up the delight with which this gifts were received. ‘I now take the pleasure of acknowledging receipt of your most welcome Christmas pudding, which I was so pleased to receive. I and my friends enjoyed the pudding so much.’  

The stirring of the Christmas pudding continued to be a much celebrated ritual on all HMS Ships and at Naval establishments long after the end of both World Wars. In 1952, with rationing still uppermost in the minds of many, the ‘mammoth’ puddings made at HMS Condor, at Arbroath in Scotland attracted particular attention in the press. Weighing in at 40lb in total and using 130 eggs, these puddings also included 160 specially sterilised silver three-penny bits, rather than coins made from cupro-nickel (which when mixed with fruit were deemed to produce an unpleasant taste). Sailors who served at the station  received an 8 oz portion of pudding, and the names of those few chosen to stir the enormous barrels of mixture with ‘carley raft paddles’, appeared in the local press.

Wikimedia Commons

A Recipe in Flux

It’s fun to imagine that  - on some sensory and emotional level - you will in some way  be ‘connecting’ with your ancestors when you taste your pudding this Christmas. But recipes for plum puddings have suffered some variation over the decades and have certainly not tasted (nor indeed looked) the same for each generation of our ancestors.
The common adulteration of flour in the 1860s, for example, meant that some mid-Victorian puddings were pretty tasteless  And there were other intermittent historical factors that affected the composition of puddings. In 1922, a disaster abroad caused the following startling headline to appear in many British newspapers: CHRISTMAS PUDDING MAY HAVE TO BE MADE WITHOUT RAISINS! The source of the problem was a huge fire which had devastated the commercial centre of the port town of Smyrna (located in present day Turkey) ruining the entire 80-100.000 tonnes of raisins for export. Mr McVittie, Honorary Secretary of the British Chamber of Commerce in the town, commented,  ‘English Christmas puddings will have to be made without raisins this year, unless people can afford to pay fabulous prices for them. A result of the fire was a rise today in the price of currants from Greece.’  The Portsmouth Evening News, 16th September 1922.

In the years of the Second World War, few Christmas puddings were made at home because of rationing. Keen to keep up the tradition and for it not to become a treat only for the very rich, The Ministry of Food, with the voluntary agreement of food manufacturers, introduced standardisation of sizes and prices for Christmas puddings within and without basins. In 1943, the prices of these standardised puddings ranged from 1 shilling 71/2d  for 2lb puddings without basins to 7 shillings for 4lb puddings in basins. (reported in The Gloucester Citizen 15th December 1942)

The making of the annual Christmas pudding might have tested the ingenuity and stretched the resources of our ancestors over the years but it was a part of the festivities that they would rarely have done without, for after all, as the Times put it in 1853,  ‘This savoury compound… is the very foundation of Anglo-Saxon civilization.’ December 29th, 1853.

Ready to eat: Wikimedia Commons

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Further Reading and useful websites

Connelly, Mark, Christmas: A Social History,  I. B. Tauris, Rpt, 2012.

Hopley, Claire, The History of Christmas Food and Feast. Remember When, 2009

Lewis, E. G. All Things Christmas: The History and Traditions of Advent and Christmas CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.

Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance. Dover Publications, 1976.

Kaori O’Connor, “The King’s Christmas Pudding: Globalization, Recipes, and the Commodities of Empire” (Journal of Global History, Vol. 4, 2009, pp. 127–155). 

This article first appeared in Family Tree Magazine UK 2015

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Sunday, 26 November 2017

Access 25 short illustrated articles on how your ancestors celebrated Christmas


        Ancestors' Advent Mini-Blogs


Daily on this blog from December 1st-25th 2017


Loads of great ideas from the past for decorating for Christmas


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Thursday, 23 November 2017

How did your ancestors decorate for Christmas?

Greenery and fruit, sparkle and snow, colourfully-dressed tables and walls inscribed with Yuletide mottos - Christmases past were decorated using much the same general combination of ideas as Christmases today.  But the specifics of the way our ancestors decorated their homes at any given time in the past depended not only on tradition, but also on what was currently most novel and up-to-date.     

Yew, box and fir were all used to decorate the house at Christmas as  well as the more obvious holly, mistletoe and ivy. The Girl’s Own Paper, December 8th, 1888, Vol X, No.467

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, domestic and church decorations at Christmas tended to be simple and worked on the principle of bringing something of the outside world indoors. Our ancestors would decorate their lamps, candles and tables, very shortly before Christmas Day, with material such as holly, ivy, mistletoe and berries collected from hedges and winter gardens.  The candles (attached to the greenery with wax or pins) would be lit only on Christmas Eve to   minimise the danger of fire hazard). The Rev. James Woodforde, who kept a diary from the mid eighteenth century onwards, recorded that he filled his house with holly and lit a great wax candle especially for Christmas.  Fruit and vegetables, imported from overseas, or newly-grown in British hothouses, were considered decorations in and of themselves. The Market Post of December 25th 1848 noted that in Covent Garden that Xmas season, the  supply of pineapples, apples, pears, hothouse grapes, foreign grapes, walnuts, lemons and oranges was ‘seasonally good and sold readily.’

Victorian Christmas Postcard: Wikimedia Commons


A typical home at Christmas in the mid-Victorian period, would have been decorated to draw the eye towards the fireplace, which would have been ablaze with colour and sparkle. The popular installation of a Christmas tree in the domestic environment was widely attributed to a widely publicised etching of the Royal family at Christmas, complete with a tree (decorated with tinsel made from real shavings of silver) in the London Illustrated News of 1848. Mottoes or biblical quotations, with the individual letters cut out from paper and decorated with coloured rice or cotton wadding to imitate snow were often strung across the walls. Trees were decorated with ornaments made from lace, paper, scraps of newspaper and magazine illustrations.

Spurred on by the royal endorsement of Christmas, our Victorian ancestors proceeded to go decoration-crazy as the century progressed. As the  Supplement to the Sheffield and  Rotherham Independent of  Saturday December 24th 1881 commented, '(Christmas decorations) are no longer hung around a room haphazard - as pineapples, apples, holly bough here, a bunch of berries the, a trail of ivy elsewhere. They are carefully planned and artistically constructed.’  
Girl's Own Paper December 20th 1884, Vol VI, No.260.


An ancestor might have started preparing for Christmas many days or weeks before the event, and there was plenty of advice around to suggest just what tools he or she would need to make a good job of it:  ‘A good deal table to work upon is an essential; some stout brown carpet paper for cutting out letters or making backs for monograms and medallions; cardboard for suspended letters; wadding to imitate snow; strong twine; fine wire; a few old barrel-hoops; some whole rice uncooked; red sealing wax; spirits of wine; needles and woollen threads, scissors; hammers and tacks, are among the domestic trifles which come in usefully. Supplement to the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, December 24th, 1881.

By the end of the Victorian period, Christmas had become big business. Homemade decorations were supplemented in wealthier families by shop-bought items. The image of Father Christmas, as a prolific gift-giver - rather than simply in his old evocation as an expression of festive hospitality - appeared frequently in the press, on cards and other festive paraphenalia. New department stores across the country stocked up with the latest glass and lead toys and baubles many of which were manufactured in Germany, (though, even as early as the 1890s, some came from the East).  Conway, Jones and Co. of Northgate in Gloucester,   was typical of a small family-owned shop which boasted a Christmas window full of  ‘thousands of clever Japanese toys and novelties suitable for Xmas trees and bazaars, at 1 d each.'  The Citizen, December 18th 1897.



The boon in decorating for Christmas went on right through the Edwardian period at which time, every nook and cranny became a possible location for ornamentation: mantelpieces sported homemade convex wire cages, through which ‘the stalks of ../ flowers, holly, etc’ could be passed,’  trellis decorations surrounded doorways, wooden hoops trimmed with holly hung from ceilings, and (the middle-classes in particular) sought to outdo each other with decorated friezes and dado rails.

No longer were Christmas decorations confined to the home and church, now a vast array of public buildings were resplendently dressed for Christmas. Schoolrooms were festooned with chains of paper roses or coloured flags looped high across the room, or draped from the corners of the walls to a the centre point where they would be fixed to a hook or ceiling rose.  In 1916, despite the First World War, Walsall Hospital boasted a huge Christmas tree which ‘ stretched right up to the ceiling, with a lovely fairy doll at the top and hundreds of shining stars and balls hanging on it, as well as dozens of small trumpets and whistles.’


Wikimedia Commons


Christmas decoration in Britain continued to keep pace with international politics and technological developments. Unsurprisingly, the First World War (1914-1918) saw a huge drop in the sales of ornaments made in Germany.  In 1917, electric Christmas lights for Christmas trees were first on commercial sale (although they had actually been invented as early as 1880). The 1920s brought the invention of adhesive tape and artificial holly and mistletoe. Of the new imitation greenery, one lady correspondent eulogised to The Evening Telegraph, ‘they are very clever imitations and can scarcely be detected from the real thing.’ (20th December 1927).  Crepe paper (which had first appeared in Britain in the late nineteenth century) had its heyday in the twenties. It was perfect for Yuletide artistry since (as the same lady continued) ‘it was ‘obtainable in a multitude of colours and patterns… [was] tough and strong, [and] possess[ed] an elasticity which [was] ideal for the making of decorations.’

The difficulties of affording and sourcing luxury materials were everywhere apparent during the Second World War (1939-1945) and this was reflected in a move back towards a more natural kind of Christmas decoration in most British homes at this time. The Burnley Express and News commented grimly on December 27th, 1941, ‘Except for holly of course, of which there appeared to be quite a lot, Christmas decorations in the home were not on the same scale as in previous years, there being obvious reasons for this.’

Once the War was over, however, our ancestors returned to decorating their homes with renewed zest and an eye for modernity. Cellulose paper (first manufactured in Britain in the 1930s), was newly popular because it sparkled in firelight or electric light, artificial tinsel garlands were at the height of their popularity and aluminium Christmas trees arrived in 1955. Plastic novelty ornaments and tree decorations could be purchased cheaply from Woolworth’s (the American-owned emporium increasingly to be found on every British high street). The festive celebrations of the 1950s gave a focus for the mixture of nostalgia, patriotism, but most of all, the optimism, that characterised the decade.


Christmas, of course, is a peculiar time when we are wont to reflect that both everything and nothing remains the same.  It’s perhaps comforting to know that  our ancestors, like us, always welcomed the festive season by experimenting both with natural ingredients and traditional ideas, and with new materials and novel technologies. Long may it remain a magical combination!   


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Useful Books
Mark Connelly, Christmas: A Social History, I.B. Tauris, rept., 2012.
E. G. Lewis, All Things Christmas: The History and Traditions of Advent and Christmas, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.
Clement A. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, Their History and Significance,  Dover Publications, 1976.
Rev. James Woodforde, A Country Parson: James Woodforde’s Diary, 1759 -1802, Century, 1985.


This article first appeared in Discover Your Ancestors Online Periodical - December 2015.  http://www.discoveryourancestors.co.uk/


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