december 6th - stirring the pudding
Another Advent ritual, one that happened very early on – and may indeed have been before the Calendar itself was hung each year – was the making of the Christmas pudding. Yes, in the good old days before microwaves and consumer capitalism took over the world, puddings were made by hand.
I’m guessing it would be the first weekend in December, or it could have been as early as the first weekend after Guy Fawkes, the Christmas pudding was made.
Even as a small child I didn’t like Christmas pudding. It has always been too rich for me. But what I did like was the process of making the pudding. It’s up there with the memory of Listen with Mother – ‘are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.’ Though obviously if we made our Christmas pudding on a weekend Listen with Mother wouldn’t be on. You can’t trust memory 100 %. Things get mixed up, like the pudding. But the ingredients remain the same.
My mother used one of those big buff ceramic bowls with patterns on the outside and inside it was white. It was also used throughout the year for making other cakes – and it was the nirvana from which we got raw chocolate cake mix on a wooden spoon. The treat of getting to ‘lick the spoon’ was an excitement not just reserved for Christmas. Indeed licking the spoon wasn’t part of the Christmas pudding ritual. It was substituted by being allowed to stir the pudding.
I remember the weight of the spoon as it worked its way through the thick mixture. I remember standing on a stool to reach up above the kitchen counter so that I could get enough purchase to actually move the spoon round the bowl. I didn’t pick up the bowl and stir with it under my arm as my mum did. I couldn’t even lift the bowl. But I took my turn in stirring.
The stirring was good but the most exciting bit was the dropping in of the sixpences. I don’t know how anyone else did it but in my house we wrapped sixpences in silver paper and dropped them into the mix, then stirred them in. I remember wondering if I could in any way control and then remember where they ended up. I don’t know how many we put in, but it wouldn’t have been more than two or three. It wasn’t like you were going to get a sixpence with each portion. No, in the days before the Lottery, getting a sixpence in your Christmas pudding was like winning the lottery.
It always gave me a dilemma. Like I said, I’ve never really liked the richness of Christmas pudding and after a roast turkey with all the trimmings (on top of all that pre breakfast chocolate!) I could most happily have said no to it. Except for the prospect of getting a silver sixpence. Sixpence wasn’t a huge amount of money in those days, but it would buy you a quarter of humbugs at least. So I weighed up the options and I always opted for the pudding.
Then I picked my way through it – you had to - because there was nothing worse than biting into tin foil, unless it was not getting a silver sixpence at all and being faced with having to eat a whole plateful of the stodgy, rich pudding. No one wanted to trade Christmas pudding. Even those who loved it couldn’t eat more than one portion. And at Christmas dinner, at least in our house where we still knew that there were starving children - Biafrans in those days if I recall correctly – it was not the done thing to try to fob off your good food. Usually I could get away with palming something to my brother. But at Christmas dinner you were under the spotlight. You didn’t want anything to spoil the cracker pulling moment, which wouldn’t happen till everyone had a clean pudding plate.
Perhaps it was during Christmas dinner that I first realised the painful power of ritual. The mountain of food I didn’t really like, and didn’t have room for, playing against the guilt of someone having put themselves out – and my mum really did love to go to town cooking Christmas dinner. It was her favourite meal of the year, she always said. It was my least favourite. Turkey has always tasted bland to me, like chicken that needs salt on it. I’ve never been a fan of ‘proper’ roast potatoes –all that goose fat or lard – and my mum was of the old school for whom a vegetable really had to be boiled to perdition before it was put on a plate. Gravy, stuffing, chipolata sausages, it all just added to the pile that had to be forced down my throat in full knowledge that Christmas pudding was the next inevitable step. And that you had to ‘enjoy’ every mouthful or you were ungrateful. And being ungrateful that soon after Santa had been was unconscionable.
My childhood was really the age of plastic. But you didn’t dare suggest putting leftovers from Christmas dinner into Tupperware. The toys we treasured at Christmas were plastic and usually didn’t need batteries. But I certainly needed recharging after Christmas Dinner. With the prospect of cold turkey sandwiches and home-made Christmas cake to come, let’s just say I was not in my epicurean heaven. Christmas cake is overkill. It’s just cold Christmas pudding without the silver sixpence but with the addition of marzipan and icing. I liked the icing but not the marzipan. That’s Christmas for you, isn’t it? Everything’s a trade off between what you like and what you don’t. But you have to act like you’re having a great time, however sick you feel. At least we did in my family. Even by the time I was 6, Christmas was starting to lose its glitter.
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An advent calendar of memories that are not for the faint-hearted.