Charles Petzold

Christmas Puddings Tossed into the Fire

December 25, 2013
Sayreville, New Jersey

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.

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:

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:

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?