My paternal grandfather was French but his early years in the cloth trade were spent working in England. So on his return to France he carried with him some English traditions that were adopted by the succeeding generations. One of these was the rite that concluded every Christmas dinner: the flaming of the plum pudding by the father of the household. My dad, being born in England, considered himself to be very British, despite his two French parents, so, after our family moved to England, it was no surprise that he too insisted on the Christmas pudding ritual.
A hush would descend over the table as Mom carried in the steaming orb which to us children looked to be the size of a soccer ball. Dad would then, with great ceremony, heap white sugar on top of the pudding before drenching it with about a third of a pint of rum. It had to be dark navy rum, your sissy white stuff would never do. I’m guessing Newfie Screech would qualify. Then, without further ado, the curtains would be partly drawn until there was subdued light and Dad would put a match to the pudding. Beautiful sky-blue flames appeared dancing around the hallowed sphere. The pudding always sat in a shallow bowl so that, as the rum collected at its base, Dad would spoon it back on top. This kept the flames going for a good minute until the alcohol in the rum – most of it anyway – had burned away.
This latter point, that the alcohol was all but dispatched, was no doubt the reason we children were allowed to eat the pudding. Modern science would probably demur and the pud certainly tasted boozy but, so far, no one in our three generations of plum pudding eaters has succumbed to cerebral lesions. Did we kids enjoy it? I like to think we did, but there is no doubt the other element of the tradition – money in the pudding! – was a major incentive to eat it.
My kids (now they’re ‘kids’ not ‘children’) have never liked Christmas pudding but persist in eating it for the money. In successive years a two-pronged strategy was employed to accommodate them. First the amount of rum used was gradually reduced until one had to look hard to detect the few wispy flames flickering before they expired; the sad end of a noble tradition. Secondly the amount of money in the pudding increased annually well beyond the rate of inflation.
When we were children, my brothers and I initially never questioned the source of this income. Because Mom never made the pudding – in England it’s easy to buy excellent Christmas puddings. If we thought about it at all, we assumed the money went in at the bakery. Over time we eventually realized that it was Dad secretly sliding the coins into each serving while Mom distracted us. Once each of us discovered the ruse, we were honour-bound not to disclose it to our younger unsuspecting siblings. So until Rob, the youngest, made that discovery, the rest of us played along for a few years, and pocketed the hush money.
We assumed the same pattern of discovery would emerge with our three kids. We expected that Sarah, the eldest, one day at the doling out of the pudding would give me a knowing wink to acknowledge another rite of passage. However, amongst her many talents she could not claim to be eagle-eyed and this led to some embarrassment for her. A few days before Christmas she was talking to her school friend Olivia whose family had recently arrived from England. The two girls were discussing English Christmas traditions and both agreed how much they hated Christmas pudding. Olivia stated she simply refused to eat it and was surprised that Sarah would do so.
“Well why to you eat it? Your parents don’t force you do they?
“Oh no. I eat it for the money.”
“The money in the pudding, of course. You should know; it’s what they do in England.”
“That’s rubbish; we’ve never had money in our puddings.”
“Well, you should tell your parents to stop buying cheap puddings.”
Sarah reported this exchange to us when she got home and asked us to confirm what she has said. My wife and I decided it was time to reveal the truth before she landed herself in further embarrassment. Needless to say she was gobsmacked (as they say in England) and a bit annoyed with herself and us. So I said: “We’re sorry you were made to look foolish but how did you think the money got in there?’
“Well I didn’t want to give her the real reason; if she didn’t know, I wasn’t going to tell her. I always thought that Santa did it.”
By Hugh Marchand