Stir-up Sunday occurs on the last Sunday before the season of advent. That was November 20th this year.
Traditionally it is the day when good Christian families gathered round and mixed together the ingredients of that great British tradition the Christmas Pud, and then put it in to steam. Christmas puds only get better with age, so getting it ready and prepared so far out offers the best route to maximum culinary satisfaction on the day itself.
Anyone who has stirred a Christmas pudding will understand quite what a rigorous undertaking it is, so pulling together as much human resource as possible helps spread the load. Not only that, the ritual that arose around it offered time for the family to bond and make wishes as each member stirred their share, always East to West in honour of the wise men who visited the baby Jesus. It is a Christian tradition after all.
It’s a rather sweet if old fashioned tradition, complete in my head with imagery from a Victorian Christmas Card, gradually being lost to the annals of time. Apparently, more than two-thirds of children have never stirred a Christmas Pudding which would sort of confirm my thought process.
As a child, I remember Mum steaming Christmas Puddings – one for our household and one for my Uncle’s; but we never actually got together to help her with it. It seemed impossibly early to start the build-up, and as I was never much of a Christmas Pudding fan, there were plenty of other reasons I would have dived for cover to avoid my go with the spoon.
Ordinarily, the discovery of a largely forgotten ritual would have slipped quietly by me with not much more than the raising of an eyebrow. But the real statistic that made me sit up and put this whole Stir-up Sunday thing into context was being told recently that 83% of households in Lambeth have neither a dining room nor a kitchen table. Nowhere to sit as a family and share a meal. And as for the Christmas Pud, well, Heston does a good one and so do M&S, so why go to all the bother?
It’s a fair point; I’m certainly not encouraging every household to make its own vinegar and cyder, and as I munch my way through my third Jaffa Cake I’m hardly one to preach the values of doing everything yourself. I also have no idea what the stats are with regard kitchen and dining tables in households across the nation, but I suspect that there are plenty of places to compare to Lambeth’s statistics, and I bet both are disappearing everywhere.
But it struck me very clearly that whilst none of us would want to go back to Victorian days and values, the disconnect between who we are, what we eat and how we eat it are becoming greater and greater. Stir-up Sunday’s gradual disappearance is symptomatic of that, and I think it not just a great sadness, but also a great worry that the act of preparing and sharing our food is being so eroded in importance that its cultural significance is being overlooked. And to our cost.
To view food as a convenient source of energy is not just to miss the point from a nutritional perspective, it is to miss the point from a human perspective. We cook to satisfy needs above and beyond the merely practical, to nourish our minds as well as our bodies. We share the making and eating of food to cement relationships, both with those we love, and those we do not know.
We should all mourn the slow passing of Stir-up Sunday, and whilst most may not have the desire to go to quite the slow food lengths that a good Christmas Pudding demands, in these days of on demand and instant everything, we should never forget how much our very existence is shaped by our food, how we produce it, how we prepare it and how we consume it.
So whether we be preparing for Thanksgiving or Christmas, we need to remain vigilant. And if we don’t all get busy with the Christmas Pud five weeks out, even just making our own bread sauce adds weight to the significance of one of the great feast days in our calendars as well as being so easy and so much cheaper than from a packet. The extra mile can just be an extra foot; and if everyone joins in, small step changes can make a remarkable difference on the road to honoring our relationship with our food and with each other.
It is important to make the effort not just for our friends and family, but for ourselves. As we head on an increasingly full throttle into the Christmas festivities, a small tweak to the buildup and preparation may have some welcome outcomes.
And as Oscar Wilde once said, “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives”. How apt for the season.