In a current TV advertisement for supermarket chain Aldi, a young traveller returns to his northern hemisphere village and shares his newfound knowledge of the Aussie Christmas. The villagers begrudgingly try surfing, cricket and a frozen slip ‘n slide but are won over when he introduces them to Australian Christmas fare.
With its combination of summer activities and wintry foods, the ad goes right to the heart of the contradictions around ways of celebrating Christmas in Australia. And prominently displayed on the festive table is the Christmas pudding.
While it began as an ordinary winter dessert in Britain, making use of dried fruits when fresh ones were unavailable, the boiled pudding in Australia has come to be uniquely associated with the mid-summer Christmas meal.
The homemade boiled pudding is a large dollop of thick batter made with suet, eggs, breadcrumbs and various dried fruits. Wrapped in a floured cloth of calico, muslin or cheesecloth, it is traditionally cooked in a pot of boiling water up to several months in advance, carefully stored and then reheated in its cloth before it is eaten.
The Christmas pudding was there at the beginning of the British colonisation of Australia. The military and civil establishment were issued with beef suet and raisins for their puddings in addition to their usual rations at Christmas time.
As a free society was established, colonial merchants advertised the special ingredients needed as cooking day approached: “fine pudding raisins”, currants, figs, almonds and spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice.
Making a pudding in the 19th century was a complicated labour of love which started with seeding the fruit, continued with the grating of breadcrumbs and mixing of the heavy batter by hand, and ended with hours spent feeding a fire in a fuel stove or under the laundry copper to ensure the pudding was well boiled.
The cook not only suffered discomfort but also anxiety – would it be too heavy, sticky, crumbly?
Australian women would have identified with the feelings of Mrs Cratchit in Charles Dickens’ A Ghost Story of Christmas (better known as A Christmas Carol), published as a serial in Australian newspapers from 1844. The poor soul was a bundle of nerves during their humble Christmas meal until the family’s flaming pudding “like a speckled cannon ball” was pronounced to be the best of her whole married life.
Diggers on the Victorian goldfields of the 1850s did their best to keep up the tradition of pudding and brandy for Christmas and were less critical of the results.
According to Australian historian Ken Inglis, in Australian Colonists (1974), one goldseeker proudly claimed to have made a fine pudding which he boiled for 24 hours and found it amusing that this hot and heavy delicacy took him a full week to digest.
Mrs Cratchit swooning in a fug of ignited brandy and the diggers with their bottles bring us to the matter of the pudding’s role in the long standing link between Christmas and alcohol.
It could be an inflammatory combination. In 1832, convict Charlotte Welsh was sentenced to six weeks punishment at the Female Factory in Parramatta for her insolence in insisting that she should have brandy in her Christmas pudding.
While the flaming pudding required the high alcohol content of a spirit like brandy, Australians were encouraged to embrace lighter forms of alcohol. An 1895 Australian newspaper advertisement reminded readers “Now that your pudding is ready you require a good bottle of hock” (the modern equivalent is riesling).
Having survived a century of popularity despite not being suited to the seasons, the Christmas pudding came to have a more Australian character after 1900.
The introduction of water to the desert through the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme allowed New South Wales farmers in the Riverina to produce greater quantities of citrus fruit which was preserved as candied peel, and grapes for drying as raisins and for wine.
By the 1950s, Australian port and sherry were the recommended liquors in which to soak the dried fruit for the Christmas pudding ingredients. The pudding may not have originated in Australia but by now its ingredients certainly did.
The dried fruit industry provided an opportunity for Australia to make a contribution to the keeping up of Christmas in the UK after the second world war. With rationing still in place there, Australians generously sent Christmas parcels which included with dried fruit, spices, and suet to British relatives privately or to needy recipients through government and charities.
The Poms could go without many things in those dark days, but the Australians would ensure the tradition of Christmas puddings survived.
One of the important ingredients of the Christmas pudding was Australian, but not edible. Coins were placed in the batter and those who found them in their slice were said to be rewarded with a year of good luck. With the change to decimal currency in 1966, concern arose about whether the new coins would be suitable for use in puddings.
Extensive testing found they were not. The coins turned green, gave the pudding an odd taste and the five cent piece was said to be a danger to incautious eaters.
The Australian Mint still sells vintage 3 and 6 pence coins especially for Christmas puddings, although they come with a warning to add them after cooking.
With the increasing variety of food traditions in Australia, the Italian panettone has earned a place at the end of the Christmas menu along with sweets from a wide range of other culinary traditions. Light desserts which feature fresh fruits unimagined in British winters in the 1700s such as passion fruit-topped pavlovas, cherries, and tropical mangoes are in favour.
The pudding has evolved along with this contemporary culture. With women in the workplace, higher family incomes and a premium on convenience, it has become a gourmet food to be purchased rather than made at home. Puddings are often offered for sale as a fundraiser, extending their role as a demonstration of hospitality and seasonal generosity.
The hard work and anxiety have been outsourced but the pudding remains a resilient feature of Australian Christmas.
This article is part of The Conversation’s End of Year series.