What Exactly Is Figgy Pudding and Why Do We Sing About It?

Christmas carolers herald the festive season, singing of songs of love, joy and...figgy pudding. We get the first two. But the latter? It's a mystery that we've solved once and for all.

Christmas puddingShutterstock / Shebeko
Photo: Shutterstock / Shebeko

We all have our favorite holiday dishes, from savory entrees such as roast turkey and herb-crusted roast beef to sweet treats like pumpkin pie and chocolate peppermint bark. But has anyone tried figgy pudding? Christmas carolers demand that we bring them some this time year, but we have yet to receive a recipe from our loyal readers. So what’s the story?

Gettin’ Figgy With It

Figgy pudding (or plum, which was the name for any kind of dried fruit back in the day) originated in 14th-century Britain as a way to preserve food. A soup-like dish, it was served as a fasting meal in preparation for the Christmas season. Beef and mutton were mixed with raisins and prunes, wines and spices. When grains were added to make it a porridge, it was known as “frumenty.” In the early 15th century, it morphed into “plum pottage.” A mix of meats, grains, vegetables, fats, spices and fruits—most notably raisins and currants, not actual plums—it was packaged like huge sausages in animal stomachs and intestines to be kept until it was served months later.

By the end of the 16th century, fruit had become more plentiful, and plum pudding went from being savory to sweet. (A reader has sent us a recipe for Tiny Tim’s Plum Pudding, and it’s a delight.) Around the same time, carolers began to sing the English folk song, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” When poor folks stood on the doorsteps of the wealthy and sang, “Oh bring us some figgy pudding,” and “we won’t go until we get some,” they probably were having a bit of fun, being bold about the relationship between the two classes and spreading Christmas cheer.

Marked as a Christmas tradition in Britain in the mid-1600s, these Christmas desserts were banned in 1647 by Puritans but reinstated as a Christmas pudding by King George I. By Victorian times, the ingredients had become close to that of modern versions, and the recipe became standardized in the 19th century. Now the Christmas figgy pudding typically includes breadcrumbs, eggs, brown sugar, suet, raisins, currants, candied orange peel, nutmeg, cloves, allspice and alcohol. Figs have never actually been an official ingredient, but they are included from time to time, inspiring the well-known name along the way.

We’ll Drink (and Eat) to That

Traditionally made in the shape of a cannonball, Christmas puddings are loaded with alcohol to draw out and intensify the flavor, most often rum or brandy, and doused in brandy before serving and spectacularly set aflame. Preparations for the perfect pudding began the Sunday before advent or around five weeks before Christmas. Twice-boiled in a pudding cloth, it was then aged—time-consuming and labor-intensive, but well-worth the effort.

Today, figgy and other puddings are often made in molds or fluted tube pans and steamed. You can buy them at the supermarket or even make them in a slow cooker or the microwave. So come Christmas day, fill your table with delicious Christmas food. Lay out your pumpkin and apple pies. And bring your family some tasty Christmas pudding and call it figgy to celebrate in style.

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