When we brought our four small children from “England’s Green and Pleasant Land” to Texas in 1975, we felt it imperative that they learned our long-standing British traditions and customs. It was sweltering mid-August when we arrived, but that is almost too late to begin the preparations for the traditional Christmas pudding, and indeed, the Christmas cake! But the pudding was tantamount. We hauled out a huge, deep bowl, and in it we combined currants, raisins, candied fruit peels, almonds, chopped apples, diced carrots, orange and lemon peels, beef suet, flour, beaten eggs, breadcrumbs, brown sugar and sloshes of brandy, then we all kneaded and beat the mixture with wooden spoons until it was blended. We draped a dampened kitchen towel over the bowl to refrigerate.
Meanwhile, my husband, John, and I, exhausted, sat at the table to drain the remainder of the brandy, while the children—aged 9 years to Baby Annwen—sipped the leftover orange juice that we had also added to our concoction.
The following morning, we spooned the fragrant mess out of the bowl and into English pudding basins that we had hauled over The Pond, then we steamed, cooled, refrigerated and forgot about it for four months as the thrill and anxiety of settling into a new house, new schools, new jobs and new friends (who supposedly spoke English, but a different one to ours) absorbed our lives.
Then Christmas Day arrived! Such excitement! We had no beloved grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins to join us now, but we had invited our son Gareth’s newlywed teacher and husband, who had recently hosted us at this new and wonderful feast of Thanksgiving, with turkey and sweet potatoes and pecan and pumpkin pies!
We plowed our way through the Christmas roast beef with its accompaniment of crisp potatoes, Yorkshire puddings (a.k.a. popovers), Brussels sprouts, buttery carrots and rich gravy. We were replete, and we all looked very silly wearing paper hats and reading really stupid jokes to each other after we had pulled our Christmas crackers. Sentimental carols from dear little choirboys in ancient British cathedrals chorused us from the record player, and we all became a little watery-eyed over our post-prandial beverages.
Then! THE BIG EVENT!
The lights were dimmed, save for those decorating the Christmas tree, and a reverent silence fell over the dining room. John plated the long-steamed Christmas pudding with hallowed respect, sloshing it most liberally with brandy, while I bore in with a bowl full of brandied whipped cream. There was a gasp of awe from all present as John lit the pudding into flames. Cheers of joy rang out and tears of sentimentality flowed as we remembered harder times when anything available—even potato peelings—were thrown into that precious pudding just to keep the beloved custom alive.
John and I had decided that we should connect this wonderful moment with another intensely British tradition, and what more appropriate than the national anthem? Our dear guests were Americans, as we are now, and this is the same tune as “America” (“My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty…”). Our four small novice Americans were so confused. We suffered through a rendition of “God Save the Queen,” followed by a heartfelt bellowing of “My Country Is a Flea.” Then we all nibbled tiny portions of our rich Christmas pudding as its flames died down. The sweet choirboys merged into Elvis, who then was actually still alive, and we slithered into a stupor of sated joy, uniting ancient traditions and New World excitement.
More than 40 years have lapsed since that memorable Christmas Day—the day we christened with fire what our son Owen has hurtfully described as “dinosaur poop set ablaze.” Nowadays, I am gifted a pudding from an upscale London grocery by my sister-in-law, and this classy pudding has an entire Seville orange buried in its center! The puddings keep for years, and I am too sentimental not to store one. But still, each Christmas, with our large family and many beloved friends gathered, we bellow out “God Save the Queen!” as we watch our pudding flames die down. Bless the Queen’s heart; she would be so flattered, and I know she would love a nip of the brandy!
By Judith Egerton