Retreating to their cosy dens

Presenting the plum pudding to an expectant family.
Presenting the plum pudding to an expectant family.

Written by Heather Elvidge

It really feels as though our bit of the planet is tilted away from the sun. Yet even as November shows us its dark side, Christmas lights are 
appearing to cheer the afternoon gloom.

Even so, many of us feel like retreating to a cosy den. After all, other creatures do it.

Toads, newts and female frogs pass the winter on land, snug in a bank or under a stone. Male frogs stay in their pond, sunk in the mud at the bottom.

Most butterflies and moths survive in egg or chrysalis form. In a few species the adults find shelter and become 
inert – small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies are often found like this in sheds or attics. They’ll survive until spring, if undisturbed.

Badgers are a bit like us – occasionally active in winter, yet mostly lethargic. They keep warm by sharing a nest chamber, slowing their heartbeat to a quarter of its normal speed. Bats hibernate, but not deeply: they can be roused by a slight rise in temperature.

Among British mammals, only hedgehogs and dormice are deep hibernators. Their body temperature falls low, yet not low enough for ice crystals to form in their tissues. Heartbeats are slowed. Minutes go by 
between breaths.

With luck, theses creatures will eke out their energy for weeks. But hibernation is a difficult trick to pull off. If something goes wrong, like being woken too often, they will starve to death.

Stir up

So, it’s no to hibernation. Comfort food will help us face the cold – hot soup, bacon sandwiches, hearty stews, toasted muffins. And Christmas is coming, with all its rich fare.

This Sunday is the last 
before Advent, the traditional day for making plum puddings. It’s been called Stir-up Sunday since the 1830s, when congregations heard this Collect read in church: “Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they may plenteously bring forth the fruit of good works...”

Children had their own version: “Stir up, we beseech thee, the pudding in the pot. Stir up we beseech thee, and keep it all hot. When we get home, we’ll eat the lot.”

Christmas pudding goes way back. Its ancestor was plum pottage, a medieval stew of diced mutton or beef, simmered in wine with raisins, currants, prunes, spices and breadcrumbs.

The iconic round pudding, boiled in a cloth, appeared around 1700. This contained more breadcrumbs, but less meat and wine. The new plum pud became fashionable when it appeared on King George’s table at Christmas 1714; a fall in the price of dried fruit aided its spread and established the pud as a festive favourite.

The status of plum pudding was further enhanced in 1843, when Charles Dickens wrote a Christmas Carol. Even his hard-up Cratchit family must have a pudding, even if it was a rather modest one.

Since then, the plum pudding has had a few make-overs. Suet replaced the meat. Vegetable fat 
replaced the suet. Today endless variations are on sale, but only those who make their own can have a wish. Stir three times clockwise while making the wish, then keep it secret, or it will never come true.