Stir- Up Sunday is the Sunday before Advent and so named because Christmas Puddings would traditionally be made then, with all the family involved in the stirring process. But it's name derived from the church’s collect for that day which began, ’Stir up, we beseech thee oh lord.’ This migrated to sayings such as, ’Stir-Up the pud we beseech thee, the pudding is in the pot.’
The tradition of families gathering together in the kitchen to mix and steam Christmas pudding on Stir-up Sunday meant that family recipes got passed down generations. Traditionally everyone takes a turn to stir the pudding mixture and a wish is made by the person as they mix. It was good luck to stir sun-wise and bad luck if stirred the opposite way. Some said the stirring is east to west in honour of the journey taken by the three wise men to visit the baby Jesus. On a practical note, as anyone who has made a Christmas pudding knows, stirring such a thick and sticky mixture is hard work, so getting other people to help would greatly ease the task. Silver sixpences and good luck charms such as a tiny wishbone (to bring good luck), a silver thimble (for thrift), or an anchor (to symbolise safe harbour were often added to be found by lucky recipients as they had a mouthful of the pudding on Christmas day. This tradition came from adding charms and other surprises to Twelfth night cake.
The Christmas pudding in the fruit format we know is said to have been brought to us in the British Isles by Prince Albert as a recipe from his homeland Germany. Although it origins are from further back to the 14th century porridge called 'frumenty' that was made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. It was often called plum pudding (plum being the name used for raisins) or even just ‘pud.’ It was boiled in a pudding cloth, and turned out a ball shape.
One of the earliest plum pudding recipes is given by Mary Kettilby in her 1714 book A Collection of above Three Hundred Receipts in Cookery, Physick and Surgery whilst the East Sussex cook Eliza Acton was the first to refer to it as "Christmas Pudding" in her bestselling 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families.
On ‘the day’ itself, after many more hours of steaming the pudding is turned out of its basin, decorated with holly and ‘flamed’ by setting it alight with the addition of warmed brandy and carried to the table with much applause and cheer.
Charles Dickens, in 1843, best describes the scene in A Christmas Carol:
"Mrs Cratchit left the room alone – too nervous to bear witnesses – to take the pudding up and bring it in... Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper which smells 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-quarter of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top."
A recipe for Queen Victoria’s Christmas Pudding
This is Francatelli’s Plum Pudding from The Modern Cook (1846). Charles Elmé Francatelli was Queen Victoria’s chef from 1840-42.
¾lb (335g) raisins
¾lb (335g) currants
½lb (225g) candied orange, lemon and citron
1¼lb (560g) chopped beef suet
1lb (450g) flour
¾lb (335g) moist sugar
4 medium eggs
3 gills (450ml) of milk
Grated zest of 2 lemons
1 tsp each of ground nutmeg and cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
Glass of brandy (about 50ml)
A very little salt
Mix the ingredients thoroughly together in a large basin several hours before the pudding is to be boiled; pour them into a mould spread with butter, which should be tied up in a cloth. The pudding must be boiled for four hours and a half; when done dish it up with a German custard sauce spread over it, made as follows:
Put four yolks of eggs into a bain-marie or stew pan, together with two ounces of powdered sugar, a glass of sherry, some orange or lemon peel (rubbed on loaf sugar), and a very little salt. Whisk this sharply over a very low fire, until it assumes the appearance of light frothy custard.
As for leftovers, because Christmas puddings keep well, mainly because of all the alcohol in them, many families would keep one back from Christmas to be eaten at another celebration later in the year, often at Easter. Constance Spry records that it was not uncommon to go so far as to make each year's pudding the previous Christmas. In Lancashire the leftovers are made into a type of Eccles cake with the crumbs and in Devon they turn the leftovers into a type of 'custardy' pudding whereas in Yorkshire it is sliced and served with cheese as is the remains of Christmas cake and some people slice it and fry it which was how the original plum porridge was often served.