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We All Want Some Figgy Pudding and Wassail. But What the Heck Are They?

Every Christmas season, we find ourselves breaking into song about going a-wassailing, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire (pro tip: don’t try this in a NYC apartment). And don’t forget those aggressive demands for figgy pudding! 

To be fair, we tend not to pay too much attention to song lyrics. Sweet dreams are made of cheese, amirite? But if you’re as obsessed with eating and drinking as we are, you must have stopped to wonder… what is the history of the famous food in Christmas carols? And why are we making vaguely veiled threats over a dessert that even Santa seems to have abandoned for Christmas cookies? 

What is Wassail?

The Wassailing tradition goes back over a thousand years ago to Saxon England. It began as a toast, with one person raising their goblet of spiced apple ale to another with a cheers of “Waes Hael” —meaning good health or good fortune—and the drinking buddy responding with a “Drinc Hael” (drink to your health or fortune). By the time the 17th century rolled around the punch itself started being called wassail, and holiday revelers in England would go door to door with a big bowl, sharing it out. Sorta like a Renaissance-era pub crawl where the booze comes to you!

So what’s the difference between wassail and mulled wine? Frankly, we wouldn’t turn anyone away from our door if they came bearing either. But wassail is traditionally made with fermented apples, so if you want to get in on the festive Christmas tradition, you can honestly just spike some apple cider (or Cranberry Apple Cider Mule Cocktail Mixer) and call it a day!  

There’s also a slightly different form of wassailing that kicked off during the Middle Ages, which was sort of a cross between caroling and trick-or-treating (are you listening, Nightmare Before Christmas fans?). Peasants would take their bowl of wassail to the feudal lord’s manor, sing a few songs, ladle out some drinks, and wait for their gifts. It wasn’t until they got ‘em (figgy pudding, hello) that they bestowed blessings on the household and wished them a prosperous new year. Go fig-ure!  

What is Figgy Pudding?

Clearly, this holiday treat was once so sought after, that peasants risked sticking their necks out over it (literally and figuratively) to their feudal lord and lady. Ya know, during the time that medieval torture was actually invented.   

So, the Church had decreed that a very special pudding should be made on the 25th Sunday after Trinity, with 13 flavors that represented Christ and his 12 apostles. The original recipe included all sorts of nuts and fruits—figs among them—all held together with suet or mutton fat and steamed. As an extra special touch (and to help give it a longer shelf life), the whole thing was regularly saturated with brandy or ale over the course of 5 or so weeks, and then sloshed one final time and set ablaze before serving. No wonder it fell out of favor during Puritan times, before once more becoming a British holiday tradition… and undergoing a name change to Christmas pudding or plum pudding. 

What Are Sugar Plums?

Ever had sugar plums dance in your head? You should probably see someone about that. 

But for real, the famous Nutcracker fairies take their name from a ground-up mix of dried fruit (no, not necessarily plums) along with nuts and spices, rolled into balls (so they look like plums) and sprinkled with sparkly coarse sugar.

As for the name itself, it seems to have first come up in a 1600-era cookbook “for ladies,” that described boiling fruit in sugar as the most “kindly way to preserve plums.” This kind of treat became a luxury product in the 1700’s, when a labor-intensive process called panning was used to produce sugar plums commercially. And in fact, in the 1800’s, “plum” became British slang for a large pile of money or bribe. So (possibly?) sugar plums would have been good for getting figgy pudding-loving hordes off your doorstep!

So the next time you score a hot invite to go wassailing, or sugar plums start doing the two-step in your head, you’ll actually know what those 16th century Brits were talking about!  

Wanna start your own Christmas carol-worthy food traditions? Take a page from wassail and sugar plums (not to mention spirit-soaked figgy pudding) with these festive boozy sweets!