The Proof is in the Pudding: A Bah! Humbug! Victorian Christmas

‘He is an utter and bombastic fraud. He rolls spluttering and crackling onto the English dinner-table at Yuletide, a sprig of English holly cocked jauntily in his cap, well nigh bursting his rotund body in swaggering sham patriotism.’1

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From: L. F. Austin and A. R. Ropes, ‘The Whirligig of Time’ The English Illustrated Magazine 123 (Dec 1893) pp.261-68.

Thus begins an article published in The Windsor Magazine in 1897. The subject is the plum-pudding, a dish that the author calls a ‘genuine, rollicking comrade of the roast beef of Old England.’ A few years earlier, the English Illustrated Magazine had dubbed the pudding ‘our national heritage’ along with his ‘baked brother, the mince pie’.⁠2 And surely Christmas isn’t Christmas without Christmas Pudding? It certainly isn’t in our family, where, come 9pm, we will all undoubtedly be sitting beneath a bedecked and balding tree listening to Michael Bublé from the depths of our festive food-comas. Along with Father Christmas, stockings, reindeer, presents, mistletoe, wine, and A Muppet’s Christmas Carol, the plum pudding is a staple of the modern British festive celebrations. In 1893, L. F. Austin and A R. Ropes even suggested that it might bond the globe together in a ‘Pan-Anglican Federation’ alongside our timeless literary heritage: ‘our chief bond of union,’ they write, ‘will be our common possession of Shakespeare, Milton, and plum-pudding’!

For the Victorians, the Christmas pudding represented ‘the character of a race that can assimilate’⁠3—a endorsement of British imperialism and of the English belly. However, as the opening quotation suggests, this culinary emblem had a dark side. It contained ‘black spots of indigestion’ and was ‘a rough practical joker to the nervous folk who suffer from nightmare’.⁠4 Its imagined fealty to Britain was, for the authors, undercut by its ability to cause digestive distress and give rise to bad dreams.

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Indeed, the plum-pudding as antagonist enjoys a wide currency in nineteenth-century periodicals and it is no better illustrated than by satirical magazine Judy’s Christmas Annual cover of 1895, which features a young man awoken to the terrifying prospect of being eaten by his yuletide supper! The cartoon provides an updated British equivalent to Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting ‘The Nightmare’ and Jean Pierre Simon’s 1810 ‘Cochemare’ both of which drew on an established literary tradition by depicting a chest-sitting incubus as an expression of sleep paralysis. Judy playfully transforms the incubus into a pudding and in doing so, reminds us of the power of poor digestion to disrupt our sleep. The marketers of Sea Foam Baking Powder, drew on this same connection between nightmares and indigestion when they used a goblin-like creature to represent dyspepsia and poor sleep in the 1880s.

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When I was 6 or 7, I  remember my grandmother telling me that I would get nightmares if I ate cheese after midnight. She had fallen asleep between my sister and I, mid-way through a bedtime story (which incidentally featured us children running an off-the-cuff omelette restaurant). Dutifully waking her up to finish the tale, we announced that we were now hungry—starving—and as she crept with us to the kitchen, she informed us of this gastric truth. Well, it didn’t deter us from enjoying our midnight feast, but had she read me some festive Victorian periodical poetry, it might well have sent a chill to my heart and I think I would have put down the Wensleydale.

In 1878, Fun published a poem called ‘Indigestion—a Christmas Carol’ which featured a demon riding a christmas pudding:

[…] Then down on your bosom, with pendulum stroke,
The pudding comes clattering—thud!
The pleasant suspicious your sternum is broke
Conduces to curdle your blood,
And there on the top is the demon himself,
A goodly king for it all!
You clutch at the clothes to get rid of the elf—
That counterpane is your pall!
And you toss and rear
First there, then here.
And squirming, and foaming, and groaning you rave;
But all in vain,
You’ll keep the pain;
The demon your agonised efforts will brave.⁠5

The demon is indigestion made literal—a cultural referent immortalised in Adolphus Bridger’s 1888 medical textbook The Demon of Dyspepsia, and invoked by poets, authors, and commercial medicine throughout the century. Mother Seigel’s syrup for indigestion, for example, warned against the ‘touch of the demon’s chilling fingers’ as the first signs of chronic digestive distress.

The connection between digestion and dreams has, of course, a long cultural history, but in the nineteenth century, the phenomenon was narrated in ever more medicalised terms. Christmas stories like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) and The Chimes (1844) both of which feature ghostly apparitions (or in the latter case—perhaps appropriately—goblins), offer gastric explanations for the protagonists’s moral awakenings. We are all undoubtedly familiar with Scrooge’s accusation that Marley’s ghost is ‘a blot of mustard’, ‘a crumb of cheese’, or ‘a bit of underdone potato’—‘there’s more of gravy than of grave about you!’ And Trotty, the postman in The Chimes swears off eating tripe after his encounter. In 1878, The Examiner agreed that Marley was most assuredly a ‘hobgoblin’ precipitated by ‘the imminent festivities of christmas’, even going so far as to assign all historical belief in the spiritual world to the violent nightmares of indigestion. Dickens’s ghosts are examples of the ‘horrors which imagination can body forth under temporary derangements of the sensory apparatus.’⁠6

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From: ‘The Whirligig of Time’ English Illustrated Magazine (Dec 1893) p.262.

And these horrors commonly found representation in the monstrous plum-pudding, rolling ominously around the chamber floor – one author used Edgar Allan Poe’s popular narrative poem The Raven (1845) as a model to tell the story of a boy awoken by what he initially thinks is a kitten playing beside his bed. ‘Then into the darkness peering, shivering, wondering, doubting, fearing/I could dimly see a pudding rolling on my chamber floor/[…] may I see it nevermore!’ In the December issue of the London Society Illustrated Magazine in 1867, another poem recounts what one man saw the night after eating christmas pudding. Like Scrooge, his senses seem to trick him and he sees the pudding come alive:

The passage gained—I firmly do declare
I saw a pudding bounding up the stair:
A blue flame rose upon his greasy brow—
I think I see him grinning at me now.
I seized him quickly—he was just as quick,
And changed himself into my candlestick.⁠7

The pudding has current eyes and ‘nose all made of plums’, almond teeth, lemon-peel gums and a horrid grin—a haunting image if ever there was one! It chides him for overeating and like many other christmas poems puns on the notion that the proof of the pudding is indigestion.

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‘The Proof is in the Pudding’ Judy (16 Dec 1868) p.85.

The London Review identified a ‘plum-pudding literature’, which appears seasonally and is ‘more Dickens than Dickens himself!’ While we now obsess over Dickens’s supposed invention of modern Christmas, the Victorians were equally aware of his cultural influence (and often cheesed off by it!) The author complains that come christmas all sensible periodicals are ‘thoroughly Dickenized and the space hitherto occupied with essays upon the inner life of the tadpole, or the suspected embarrassment of an abandoned shellfish, [are] occupied with domestic feelings and tales within which the sentiments are violently Christmas.’

If you identify with this bah! Humbug! approach to the festive season, spare a thought for those people who, as Chambers’s journal noted in 1877, spend the holiday in a ‘monotony of dyspepsia’ surrounded by ‘indigestible plum pudding and murderous mince pies’.⁠8

Seasons Greetings from the Diseases of Modern Life Team. May your sleep on Christmas night be long, peaceful, and free from violent goblins and ominous plum puddings!

Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown
Postdoctoral Researcher, Diseases of Modern Life
@DrETaylorBrown

 



1
‘Our Christmas Plum-Puddings’ The Windsor Magazine 7 (Dec 1897) pp.64-68. (p.64).
L. F. Austin and A. R. Ropes, ‘The Whirligig of Time’ The English Illustrated Magazine 123 (Dec 1893) pp.261-68. (p.262)
‘Plum-Pudding’ Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art 10.270 (29 Dec 1860) pp.828-829.
4 ‘Our Christmas Plum-Puddings’ p.65.
5 Henry Sampson (ed) ’Indigestion! A Christmas Carol’ Fun 28(18 Dec 1878) p.252.
6 ‘The Literature of Spiritualism’ The Examiner (30 Nov 1878)3696 pp.1518-19 (p.1518).
‘What I Saw After the Christmas Pudding’ London Society: An Illustrated Magazine of Light and Amusing Literature for the Hours of Reflection 12.72 (Dec 1867) pp.55-58.
William Chambers and John Payn eds. ’Christmas-Time’ Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Arts 730 (22 Dec 1877) pp.801-803.

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