Make a wish on Stir-up Sunday

Stirring the Christmas pudding in 1876.
Stirring the Christmas pudding in 1876.
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Of all our festive traditions it’s perhaps the most endangered. It’s dark, fruity and has a centuries-old pedigree — can we really be fed up with Christmas pudding?

It’s not as though the old plum duff hasn’t tried. From ancient stew to pudding, from meat to suet to vegetable fat, it’s had a few makeovers. Still many of us are not tempted.

Well, there’s a curious old saying that could change a few minds. Apparently, those who don’t eat plum pudding will fall out with a friend in the coming year.

A grouchy grocer with a surplus of candied peel was probably responsible for that one. But maybe it is time to try making our own pud. New, lighter, recipes are out there and unlike a rich fruitcake, there’s little chance of a Bake-Off-style disaster.

This Sunday, the last before Advent, is the traditional day for making plum puddings. Since the 1830s it’s been known as Stir-up Sunday, a name borrowed from the collect that’s still read in churches. Here’s the old version from the Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1549: “Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the wills of Thy faithful people; that they may plenteously bring forth the fruit of good works …”

Festive excess

Like mincemeat, Christmas pudding used to contain real meat. Its ancestor was plum pottage, a thick, medieval stew of beef or mutton simmered in wine with breadcrumbs, raisins, currants, prunes and spices.

When the Puritans purged Christmas from the calendar in 1644 they condemned rich food as “unfit for God-fearing people”. Winter warmers such as plum pottage were in disgrace — until the Restoration, when Christmas returned with all its extravagances.

In the early eighteenth century someone took a fresh look at the old dish. Boiled in a cloth, with the recipe tweaked to use less wine, more breadcrumbs, and minced meat instead of chunks, the round plum pudding was born. In 1714, the new sensation graced the Christmas table of King George I, making it instantly fashionable.

Victorian cooks had a tradition of 13 ingredients, one each for Christ and the Apostles. And everyone had a family recipe — Mrs Beeton included eight in her household book. They also added silver charms to the mixture. A ring was for a marriage, a horseshoe for luck, and a coin for money. A button meant another year spent as a bachelor, while a thimble spelled the same fate for a spinster.

In the last century only the coin remained, “for luck”. A silver thre’penny bit was kept for the purpose, years after it had ceased to be legal tender. A shiny five pence coin does the job today. For added drama, the pudding should be doused in brandy and set on fire.

Arriving at the table wreathed in blue flames, this icon of festive excess sprouts a sprig of holly. This represents Christ’s Crown of Thorns, or for some, the Winter King of the Greenwood. The flaming spirit recalls the traditional winter game of Snapdragon, where everyone tries to snatch raisins from a dish of lighted brandy without burning their fingers.

So you will eat some Christmas pudding. But only those who help to make one are granted a wish. Wish hard, while stirring the mix three times, clockwise. And keep it to yourself, or the wish will never come true.