The Australian newspapers of the 1830s carried advertisements for all the ingredients necessary for a luxurious Christmas pudding – French plumbs, Turkey figs, Zante (Greek), currants and raisins from Spain, Smyrna (Turkey) or South Africa, along with candied orange, lemon and citron peel, and imported spices – making it an exotic and likely expensive indulgence.
Australia began producing its own dried vine fruits in the 1880s on the Murray River at Renmark and Mildura, thanks to the irrigation scheme promoted by Alfred Deakin and realised by the Canadian Chaffey brothers. As Wishart explains the irrigation scheme itself was less than successful and the dried fruits industry ‘developed by default as the most reliable and practical way of getting fruit to markets on the coast’. From the commencement nearly 80 per cent of production was exported and, by the early twentieth century, Australia was the Empire’s largest dried vine-fruits producer. But the industry had its ups and downs. The economic depression of the 1890s saw the Chaffeys go bankrupt and a Royal Commission set up to inquire into the failures of the irrigation scheme. Meanwhile. the prices for dried fruits plummeted and the Australian Dried Fruits Association was formed in 1907 to protect the interests of farmers.
The market for Australian dried fruit boomed and the returns skyrocketed during the First World War when products from traditional suppliers, such as Greece and Turkey were interrupted. However, by 1923, an ill-conceived post-war soldier settlement scheme, designed to help returned service men establish themselves on the land in the area known as ‘Sunraysia’, resulted in dramatically increased production and an inevitable plunge in prices. A solution to the industry’s woes lay in promoting Australian dried fruit both overseas, especially in Britain, and in the local market, with Christmas pudding at the forefront.
The idea that British consumers should give preference to goods produced in those countries which were members of the Empire had a long history, and by 1850 the Christmas pudding, with its wide range of ingredients from all over the Empire, was well-established as a symbol of both nation, as in Britain, and its Imperial wealth.
After Federation (1901) the Australian government lobbied hard for preferential trade agreements with Britain to give special access to Australian primary produce and raw materials. There was also considerable public enthusiasm in Britain for the promotion of Empire goods. For example, The British Women’s Patriotic League held the first Empire Shopping Week in London in 1922 to coincide with Empire Day in May.
The entry of Californian growers into the British market in 1924 presented a significant challenge to Australia producers, who counteracted with heavy advertising. The theme of the Lord Mayor’s Show in London in 1924 was ‘Imperial Trade’. Australia contributed a giant Christmas pudding, paraded through the streets on Lord Mayor’s Day drawn by six white horses (one for each state) and bearing the slogan 'Make your Christmas Pudding of Empire Products’. From the illustration below it is clear that, at least in the minds of Australians, it could just as easily have been the promotion of an Australian Christmas Pudding. As Ivan Day describes it the pudding was ‘spiked’ with both the Australian flag and the Union Jack and sandwiched between a stuffed emu and a stuffed kangaroo.
The British government was determined to maintain a policy of free trade but in 1926 bowed to continuing pressure from members of the Empire for preferential access to British markets by setting up the Empire Marketing Board to formally promote empire products. Again, the Christmas pudding made a significant and highly successful contribution to the Board’s efforts. The publishing of the recipe for the King’s Christmas Pudding, based on a recipe supplied by the royal chef André Cédard, in 1927, was one of the highlights of their promotional activities. For the British audience the preparation of the Christmas Pudding was portrayed as uniting the royal family, the nuclear family, the national family and the Empire family.
Meanwhile, in Australia, the Christmas Pudding was regarded as less Imperial and more national. Cyril Pearl writing in Wild Men of Sydney claims: ‘The word “Empire” had few sentimental overtones in the ‘80s [1880s]. It had not yet been linked with God and the throne. The weaving of the bonds of Empire were done by hard-headed manufacturers and merchants who made no bones about their purpose’.
As early as 1904 Perrybingle, writing in the Weekly Times (Melbourne), commented on the promotion in Britain of an ‘all-British pudding’:
Christmas pudding and Imperial sentiment do not appear to have much to do, one with each other, but as Imperialism in these days is, in some quarters, a subject always uppermost, we find one English paper seriously discussing a discovery. It was said “the English people have had, for a long time, to depend upon the foreigner for many of the ingredients that make up 'our national delicacy'" – meaning plum pudding, not refinement in the abstract. “It is pleasant knowing,” continued the writer, “that English people may now consume an all-British pudding.” The flour, it appears is imported into England from Canada, the suet is a home production, the sugar is obtained from the West Indies, and the citron peel and raisins from Australia. The argument seems to be that a patriotic pudding should feed Imperial thought.While the writer acknowledged that Australians in general and ‘our friends at Mildura’ in particular would no doubt welcome increased sales of citron peel and raisins, and to that extent encourage ‘Imperial feeding’, nonetheless ‘the Imperialists should remember that we in Australia can make our own Christmas pudding entirely without the foreigner, for the whole of the ingredients mentioned are produced within our own country. Pudding and patriotism may be nearer allied than pudding and Imperialism.’ These comments carry the clear implication that Christmas pudding could be considered as an Australian pudding and also that the British Christmas pudding might more correctly be called the Australian Christmas pudding, a symbol of Australia's progress and achievements, and something of which the new nation could be proud.
The Empire Marketing Board’s activities extended to Australia but enthusiasm for empire was tempered here. As Gavin Souter says of the celebration of Empire Day (first introduced in 1905) ‘such was the duality of Australian self-perception that the nation did not seem to be diminished by this celebration of empire. On the contrary, it was enhanced: as far as most Australians were concerned, to praise the whole was automatically to praise the part’. Helping Australia could also be interpreted as a way of helping the Empire.
While the Empire Marketing Board was promoting imperialism, Australians were being encouraged to buy local. For example, The Australian Made Preference League was founded in New South Wales in 1924, with the pledge:
I believe Australia can become self-sufficient and prosperous through the development of primary and secondary industries; to assist that end I pledge myself to give reference at all times to “Australian-made” goods and products, all things being equal, and never to make a purchase without stating “Australian-made preferred”.
|Flinders Street Station c. 1925 VPRS 12800/P1, H1614. |
by making daily use of these appetising and nourishing fruits, you will not only be building up your own health, but will be assisting in maintaining a valuable national industry with which the successful repatriation of large numbers of returned soldiers in inseparably bound up.
Despite all these initiatives, the soldier settlement scheme was a spectacular failure. The Empire Marketing Board was wound up in 1933 after tariffs were introduced and gradually the idea of Christmas pudding as a symbol of Australian patriotism seems to have faded away. Florence James writing in The Australian Women’s Weekly in 1938 thought Australians should make their own traditional Christmas and suggested jellied turkey followed by fruit salad flavoured with passionfruit, pineapple and paw-paw which may have been exotic for the times. Similarly, Mary Forbes proposed a frozen pudding set with gelatine. Once refrigeration became common, recipes for chilled and frozen puddings appeared regularly but none of these achieved any level of popularity, certainly not enough to become a widely recognised ‘tradition’. Various forms of commercially pre-prepared puddings either canned or fresh have been marketed over the years. The most common home-made alternative to Christmas pudding today is more likely to be pavlova or trifle.
So why does the Christmas pudding ‘tradition’ persist? It remains a perennial symbol of the Christmas season even though incongruous in the Australian climate, and even though it may not be widely consumed.
In Australia, in 2019, a decent percentage of Australians do not celebrate Christmas at all and those who do bring with them many more traditions than the ones bequeathed by our British colonisers. That said of course, for no small proportion of the population honouring British traditions is honouring their personal ancestry.
Part of the reason for the longevity of a ‘traditional’ Christmas pudding is surely that it tastes good. With all the improvements in kitchen technology a boiled pudding may not be any easier to prepare today than it was in 1920 but it can be made well before the hot weather commences, stored in the refrigerator until required, and then reheated in the microwave. Its easy portability also remains one of its more desirable characteristics. No less important, it can still be made from ingredients sourced from local producers. As its history in Australia suggests, eating plum pudding at Christmas can hardly be taken as evidence that Australians are not at home here. Making and eating Christmas pudding remains more aligned to patriotism than to imperialism.
So rather than ask why some of us still persist with a tradition which seems outdated and unsuitable perhaps we should ask why not. In this case the story of the Christmas pudding is a very good example of Bell and Valentine’s contention that ‘the history of what we eat is the history of the nation’. You do not have to like Christmas pudding or eat Christmas pudding or have Anglo-British ancestry to know that the Australian celebration of Christmas is grounded in an Anglo-British heritage and recognise Christmas pudding as a reminder of that heritage. Whether we like it or not Christmas pudding acts as a flag, a symbol of nationalism found in the routines of everyday life, to us, Australians, and to other nations, which signals our cultural and historical heritage.
Evening Journal (Adelaide) 8 May 1873, p. 2 reports the first consignment of Australian raisins sent to London.
Alison Wishart, 2016. ‘“Bottled Sunshine”: The Birth of the Australian Dried Fruits Industry’, Locale: The Australasian–Pacific Journal of Regional Food Studies, 6, pp. 41–70.
Kaori O’Connor. 2009. ‘The King’s Christmas Pudding: Globilization, Recipes and the Commodities of Empire’, Journal of Colonial History 4, p.140.
Wishart, p. 49
O’Connor, pp. 132–3.
O’Connor, p.139. See also Frank Trentmann. 2007. ‘Before “fair trade”: Empire, Free Trade and the Moral Economies of Food in the Modern World’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 25, pp. 1079–1102, in particular pp.1082–1086.
As Ward puts it the Empire Marketing Board ‘operated not through preferences but through propaganda’. Stuart Ward. 2001. ‘Sentiment and Self-Interest. The Imperial Ideal in Anglo-Australian Commercial Culture’, Australian Historical Studies 32 (116): pp. 93–4.
O’Connor, p.153. For more on the Empire Marketing Board see Felicity Barnes. 2014. ‘Bringing Another Empire Alive? The Empire Marketing Board and the Construction of Dominion Identity, 1926–33’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 42 (1), pp. 61–85; David Meredith. 1987. ‘Imperial Images: The Empire Marketing Board, 1926–33’, History Today, January, pp.30–36.
Cyril Pearl. 1970. Wild Men of Sydney, Universal Books, p. 17.
‘Perrybingle Papers’, Weekly Times (Melbourne), 31 December 1904, p. 21.
Gavin Souter. 2001. Lion and Kangaroo. The Initiation of Australia, Melbourne: Text, p.129
Flora Pell, forward to A Sunshine Cookery Book, c. 1926, quoted in Wishart, p.59.
Florence James, ‘Australians Should Make Their Own Christmas Tradition’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 24 December 1938, p.14.
Mary Forbes, ‘Such a Delicious Christmas Dinner’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 16 December 1939, p. 5.
For example, Australian Women’s Weekly, 21 December 1946, p. 73; 20 December 1947, p. 38; 6 November 1968, p. 8
David Bell and Gill Valentine .1997. Consuming Geographies, London: Routledge, p.168.
Michael Billig. 1995. Banal Nationalism, London: Sage.