Stir-Up Sunday and Other Christmas Pudding Traditions and Facts

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Christmas pudding ready to eat (Photo by James Petts, CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

In the Anglican tradition, Stir-Up Sunday is the traditional day for making a Christmas pudding. It takes place on the last Sunday before Advent begins. The event occurs on  Sunday, November 24th this year. It’s associated with some interesting traditions and is a lovely reminder that Christmas is approaching. It was once—and sometimes still is—a day when the entire family took turns stirring the Christmas pudding ingredients. The name of the day is believed to have come from a passage in the Book of Common Prayer.

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. (Anglican Book of Common Prayer)

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A large and lovely pudding. (Photo from the Wellcome Trust after Cecil Aldrin, CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

A special pudding is a common part of a Christmas meal, at least in my experience. My parents always made one when I was a child. My mother created the raw pudding mix in a bowl with some help from the rest of the family. She then transferred the mix to a basin (or basins) and covered it with greaseproof paper. My father tied string around the rim of the basin in order to attach the paper to it. The pudding was placed in a pan containing water and steamed on the stove for a long time (for hours, according to modern recipes). The water level in the pan had to be topped up when necessary.

There may have been other steps in the process described above. I have a vague memory of an additional covering over the greaseproof paper, for example, which may have been aluminum foil.  Though I know the pudding was cooked by steam coming from gently boiling water on the stove, I can’t remember the exact setup. If anyone wants to make the pudding today, an Internet search for “traditional Christmas pudding recipe” should bring up some useful results.

In the past, Christmas pudding traditionally contained 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and his disciples. Today it includes dried fruit, spices, brandy or rum, flour and/or breadcrumbs, suet, and other ingredients. Suet is a hard fat obtained from specific parts of cows and sheep. Vegetarian suet made from palm oil is available in some places and may be used in store-bought puddings. As in Christmas cakes, making the pudding weeks away from Christmas enables the flavours to mingle and the taste to improve.

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This looks like a tasty slice of pudding. (Photo by James Petts, CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

The ingredients placed in the pudding bowl were supposed to be stirred from east to west in memory of the Wise Men’s journey to see the baby Jesus, though my family never followed this tradition. As a person stirred, they were supposed to make a wish. I remember doing this as a child. Another tradition was to put a sixpence or other coin into the mixture. The person who found the coin in their slice of pudding would receive good luck. This is probably an unwise tradition to follow due to the possibility of choking or tooth damage when the coin is discovered.

The pudding hasn’t always existed in the form that we know today. Its earliest form may have been the medieval porridge known as frumenty. The porridge contained a mixture of cracked grain boiled in milk or meat broth. Fruit and spices were sometimes added. Meat was also sometimes added to make a mixture called a pottage, which resembled a stew. In the past, mixing sweet and savory food together in one dish was more popular than it is today.

Over time, frumenty developed a thicker consistency due to the addition of breadcrumbs and was eventually cooked by a form other than boiling. Early forms of the pudding contained meat. At one time the puddings were known as plum puddings. The word “plum” meant raisin. Today the word raisin refers to a dried grape and the word prune to a dried plum.

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Christmas pudding with flames (Photo by Matt Riggott, CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

A Christmas pudding is part of my celebration today, though I buy one instead of making it myself. Local stores sell puddings imported from Britain, where I spent my childhood. People serve it with a brandy or rum sauce or with custard. My family has always used Bird’s custard made from store-bought powder. Bird’s is a British brand. Its custard powder was invented by Alfred Bird in 1837. Like the pudding, it’s sold in stores near my home. It’s not an instant product, but it doesn’t take long to make.

I’m not a fan of most varieties of Christmas pudding on their own. I prefer the taste of light fruit cakes and puddings compared to dark ones. I love the flavour of the traditional pudding mixed with custard, though.

Though I buy my puddings today, I think there might be some value in a family with children gathering together to make a Christmas pudding (or perhaps another item that requires a shorter cooking time). The activity could be a social one that involves family interactions and perhaps good discussions. The production of a baked item is a creative activity that can be very satisfying as well as educational. It can also create lasting and valued memories. My sister and I watched my parents make Christmas puddings and were encouraged to participate in the effort by stirring the mixture for a short time. The memories have stayed with me over the years.

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English holly in my neighbourhood

A sprig of holly is often placed at the top of the pudding. Holly was once a symbol for Christ. This is mentioned in the lyrics of the popular “The Holly and the Ivy” carol, which I’ve discussed in another post. The holly plant (Christ) is said to be bear a crown in the carol. Interestingly, Stir-Up Sunday is also known as the Feast of Christ the King.

Sometimes brandy is poured over the pudding when it’s on the table and the brandy is set alight. Obviously, this must be done carefully due to the fire hazard. It’s an interesting tradition, though.

Christmas means different things to different people. Although I’m far from being a traditional Christian, I find metaphorical value in some of its stories and customs. I like to think about what Stir-Up Sunday means to me and enjoy following some of the traditions associated with the season. They are often a link to my past and frequently have multiple meanings for me. Including a slice of Christmas pudding with some of my seasonal meals is a enjoyable tradition that I intend to continue.

2 thoughts on “Stir-Up Sunday and Other Christmas Pudding Traditions and Facts

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