'Tis the season of Christmas pudding, a hotly debated tradition, much like the holiday it's named after.
In my family, it's the same story every year: A Christmas pudding is made in the same cracked porcelain mold brought over from England by my great-great-grandmother. The custard is made and everyone take a slice. There are a few of us who actually like the stuff (myself included), but, for the most part, only one or two "traditional" bites are taken by each family member. The majority of us don't like it — but it wouldn't be Christmas without it.
But not everyone's Christmas pudding experience was the same as mine.
According to a quick internet search, I learned that Christmas pudding — also known as plum or figgy pudding — is one of the most famous yet varied dishes in history.
Christmas pudding has been referenced in pop culture for well over a century. A whole verse of "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" is dedicated to demanding it, and the "speckled cannonball" serves as the highlight of the Cratchits' Christmas meal in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
That's an awful lot of fame for a dish that has been described as a "cross between fruitcake and a haggis, set on fire."
At its roots, plum pudding was a medieval mix of sausage, fruits, spices and fat mixed with various grains, meats and vegetables — not a particularly specific recipe or definition. Eventually, the dish shifted from savory to sweet when dried fruits became more available throughout England toward the end of the 16th century.
Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas pudding (along with all other traditional Christmas items) in 1647 as part of the Puritan movement. The ban was lifted with the ascension of Charles II, but the pudding truly came back with a vengeance when journalists and writers, like our friend Mr. Dickens, brought it back into popularity with the rise of the Victorian family Christmas. At that point, however, it included ingredients like brown sugar, allspice, candied orange peels and plenty of alcohol.
With inventions like the pudding bag and molds, like the one I'm used to, the shape and method of creating a Christmas pudding are almost identical, but the similarities end there. Some puddings are baked, while others are boiled. Some make their puddings days, months or even a year in advance. Some serve it with custard, while others go for the flaming brandy. Ingredients and debate over what defines a true Christmas, plum or figgy pudding continue.
In short: It's complicated.
The good news is it doesn't matter if your Christmas pudding is baked, boiled, old, new, on fire, eaten with custard or doesn't exist at all. Christmas pudding is the perfect example of why the Christmas season is wonderful: It's customizable and always evolving: perfectly tailored to fit whatever you or your family want or need out of it.
There isn't one "true" way to celebrate Christmas, just as there isn't one true Christmas pudding. One family's or individual's traditions aren't going to be quite the same as another's. Some focus on the holiday as a religious celebration, while for others it represents a celebration of giving or love. There isn't a right or a wrong way to do Christmas, because Christmas is for everyone.
The so-called "spirit of Christmas" doesn't come from religious conviction or from everyone doing the same thing at the same time. It comes from a wish of "goodwill to all men." It comes from the feeling of participating in something bigger than any of us.
Christmas has evolved — and continues to do so — to mean something a little different to each of us. For many, that means giving, love and gratitude. For others, it is a time of religious reflection. And, for some, it's a little of both. Unlike in the days of Oliver Cromwell, there are no rules about Christmas or what it means. Just like the pudding, we all have our own slightly different version of Christmas, each contributing to the beautiful cultural phenomenon it is.