Everybody knows that the English traditionally soak their Christmas puddings in brandy and then light them on fire, but there also seems to be an English tradition of revulsion with the whole concept of Christmas, and hence also Christmas puddings, and tossing them into the fire.
In 1907, English author and poet Edmund Gosse (1849 – 1928) wrote a memoir of his upbringing that was unlike anything previously published. Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperments is arguably the first “dysfunctional family” memoir, and much of the dysfunction results from his father’s severe religious beliefs.
Edmund Gosse’s father was Philip Gosse, who was an amateur naturalist — and a rather renowned one at that as the author of several books — but also a member of a Christian sect known as the Plymouth Brethren.
In Chapter 5, the son recounts his father’s feelings about Christmas, and demonstrates exactly what should be the fate of a Christmas pudding.
On the subject of all feasts of the Church he held views of an
almost grotesque peculiarity. He looked upon each of them as
nugatory and worthless, but the keeping of Christmas appeared to
him by far the most hateful, and nothing less than an act of
idolatry. “The very word is Popish”, he used to exclaim,
“Christ's Mass!” pursing up his lips with the gesture of one who
tastes assafoetida by accident. Then he would adduce the
antiquity of the so-called feast, adapted from horrible heathen
rites, and itself a soiled relic of the abominable Yule-Tide. He
would denounce the horrors of Christmas until it almost made me
blush to look at a holly-berry.
On Christmas Day of this year 1857 our villa saw a very unusual
sight. My Father had given strictest charge that no difference
whatever was to be made in our meals on that day; the dinner was
to be neither more copious than usual nor less so. He was obeyed,
but the servants, secretly rebellious, made a small plum-pudding
for themselves. (I discovered afterwards, with pain, that Miss
Marks received a slice of it in her boudoir.) Early in the
afternoon, the maids, — of whom we were now advanced to keeping
two, — kindly remarked that “the poor dear child ought to have a
bit, anyhow”, and wheedled me into the kitchen, where I ate a
slice of plum-pudding. Shortly I began to feel that pain inside
which in my frail state was inevitable, and my conscience smote
me violently. At length I could bear my spiritual anguish no
longer, and bursting into the study I called out: “Oh! Papa,
Papa, I have eaten of flesh offered to idols!” It took some time,
between my sobs, to explain what had happened. Then my Father
sternly said: “Where is the accursed thing?” I explained that as
much as was left of it was still on the kitchen table. He took me
by the hand, and ran with me into the midst of the startled
servants, seized what remained of the pudding, and with the plate
in one hand and me still tight in the other, ran until we reached
the dust-heap, when he flung the idolatrous confectionery on to
the middle of the ashes, and then raked it deep down into the
mass. The suddenness, the violence, the velocity of this
extraordinary act made an impression on my memory which nothing
will ever efface.
This vivid recounting of a father tossing a Christmas pudding into the ashes also made quite an impression on Australian novelist Peter Carey, who acknowledged using it as a pivotal early scene in his 1988 novel Oscar & Lucinda. Indeed, Chapter 3 is entitled “Christmas Pudding.” The year is 1858, and Oscar is 14 rather then 8 as was Edmund Gosse, but the surreptitious tasting of a Christmas pudding causes a violent reaction in the father, who beats the boy and washes his mouth out with salt water. The chapter concludes:
When this was done, Theophilus threw what remained of the pudding into the fire.
Oscar had never been hit before. He could not bear it.
His father made a speech. Oscar did not believe it.
His father said the pudding was the fruit of Satan.
But Oscar had tasted the pudding. It did not taste like the fruit of Satan.
Certainly no one reading this wonderful chapter would begrudge Peter Carey lifting the scene from Edmund Gosse's book and greatly elaborating on it. The scene also made it into the 1997 movie of Oscar and Lucinda directed by Gillian Armstrong.
And there the simple connection rested between a 1907 memoir, a 1988 novel, and a 1997 movie of a Christmas pudding tossed into the fire, or the ashes from a fire.
Until recently, that is, when I was reading George Eliot’s 1860 novel The Mill and the Floss, where I encountered a passage in Book II, Chapter 2, describing a Christmas pudding that has been lit up and burning with characteristic blue flames:
The plum-pudding was of the same handsome roundness as
ever, and came in with the symbolic blue flames around it, as if it
had been heroically snatched from the nether fires, into which it had
been thrown by dyspeptic Puritans
Is there some kind of weird connection here between George Eliot's novel and Edmund Gosse's memoir? Or is it entirely coincidental?
And if the latter, exactly how long have Christmas puddings been tossed by digust into fires?