I’ve written previously about strange and interesting seasonal traditions, but here’s one I don’t think I’ve ever covered before….
A Twitter discussion last week about the wonder of proper British puddings (seriously, they really are the best in the world when done right) reminded me that today is Stir-Up Sunday. In this age of ready meals and 24 hour supermarkets, that may not mean much to you, but for many families it has long been the traditional start of the preparations for the Christmas season.
Stir-Up Sunday falls on the last Sunday before the start of Advent (as calculated by the Anglican church), and although it began life as a tradition loosely associated with religion and the impact of the church calendar on the everyday lives of ordinary people, it soon developed to have both religious and secular aspects – much as Christmas itself does in our modern world. Despite this tradition only really stretching back a couple of hundred years in its best-known form, the name ‘Stir-Up Sunday’ itself is derived from a prayer that dates back to the 16th century Book Of Common Prayer. Still said in a modern form every year on the last Sunday before Advent, the original version reads:
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
That’s all very well, but what exactly does Stir-Up Sunday involve in reality? It’s the day on which households would traditionally gather to make the Christmas pudding for the year, having been reminded by the prayer said in church that morning – with each member of the family taking it in turns to ‘stir up’ the mixture and make a private, secret wish. In some traditions, there is a distinctly religious element to this, as it is believed that the pudding mixture must be made with twelve or thirteen ingredients (to represent Jesus and his disciples) and stirred from East to West (right to left, or clockwise) to honour the Three Wise Men of the Nativity.
Other, more secular, traditions and superstitions are also associated with the process of making the pudding, including the addition of a coin and/or other meaningful little trinkets to the mixture before it is cooked to signify certain important things to those lucky (or unlucky) enough to find them in their portion of pud on Christmas Day. Traditionally, the coin used would have been a silver sixpence or threepenny bit, and everyone would want to discover it, as it would indicate the coming of health, happiness and wealth for the lucky finder.
Various other trinkets also added to the pudding mix might include a tiny thimble (said to variously signify a lucky life, or thrift, or, rather sadly, that you’ll never marry), a minature anchor (signifying safe harbour), a wishbone (indicating good luck) and a ring (foretelling marriage). Adding this sort of thing to your Christmas pudding is considered a bit dangerous these days, what with potential choking hazards and the possibility of large dentist’s bills (although getting a signifier of wealth in your pudding should mean you can afford those!), but scrupulously clean coins, often wrapped in foil or greaseproof paper, are still sometimes used.
You might think that making Christmas pudding five weeks or so before the big day would be a little early, but that’s really not the case. Christmas pudding has remarkable keeping powers – and the flavours and textures develop in complexity over time, especially if you’re feeding it with copious amounts of booze (which must also act as a preservative). Five weeks is actually about right, although some folk do take it to extremes and make an extra pudding to be kept for next Christmas!
However, Stir-Up Sunday seems to be a dying tradition. A survey conducted in 2007 found that two thirds of kids in Britain had never stirred a Christmas pudding mixture. And it seems that at least 90% of all modern Christmas puddings are now shop-bought rather than home made. I must admit that I think this is very sad, for – although I confess to not liking Christmas pudding at all! – taking it in turns to stir the mixture and making a wish was an important and fun seasonal tradition in my family. And that’s the whole point, really. Seasonal events like Stir-Up Sunday bring the family together, and often utilise recipes and ideas that have been passed down through the generations, reinforcing family festive traditions at a celebratory time of the year.
And when it comes right down to it, even my mouth waters at this, from Charles Dickens’ immortal A Christmas Carol, which has to be one of the most famous descriptions of a family Christmas pud ever…
Mrs. Cratchit left the room alone—too nervous to bear witnesses—to take the pudding up and bring it in.
Suppose it should not be done enough! Suppose it should break in turning out! Suppose somebody should have got over the wall of the back-yard, and stolen it, while they were merry with the goose—a supposition at which the two young Cratchits became livid! All sorts of horrors were supposed.
Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered—flushed, but smiling proudly—with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.
Oh, a wonderful pudding!
And for those of an historical turn of mind, have a look at the World War Two-vintage pudding recipe ‘on the ration’ that I wrote about a couple of years ago here.
If you’d like to know more about the history of Christmas pudding, you can find out more here.