The last few years my husband and I have spent Christmas in Bristol. It’s been fun learning the traditions here. In my US Midwestern family, Christmas Eve was always the big night. Christmas Day was a more low key Turkey Feast and a trip to the movies. In England, the big celebration is all about Christmas Day. The season kicks off in November with Stir-up Sunday.
Stir-up Sunday is on 26 November this year. It’s the last Sunday before the 2017 Advent season. Stir-up Sunday was inspired by the pre-Advent reading, “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people”.
Over the years the date evolved into making the Christmas puddings on that particular Sunday. The pudding (basically a steamed fruit cake) is one of the sweetest and booziest English Christmas traditions. The dried fruit filled confection was introduced by George I in 1714 (from his German heritage). The recipes for Christmas pudding direct the pudding be cooked well before Christmas and be reheated on Christmas day and then set alight with more flaming booze. Recipe HERE.
The pre-Advent church reading serves as a good reminder to get the pud going. Families gather in the kitchen on Stir-up Sunday and the parents (or grandparents) teach how to mix ingredients. Everyone takes a turn to stir as they each make a special wish for the coming year.
Practically speaking, stirring the pud is difficult thick going and “many hands make light work.” Best to have as many of the family as possible are involved. The rule is to stir from East to West in honor of the three wise men who visited the baby Jesus. Silver coins are often added to the mix for good luck to the person finding a coin in his or her slice.
The Christmas feast is pretty much as you’d expect with often the addition of Yorkshire pudding (made from a batter of eggs, flour, and milk or water which puffs high and hollow). It’s great for sopping up the gravy. Recipe HERE.
Another English accompaniment to the meal is often Bread Sauce, a modern survivor of medieval bread-thickened sauces. It’s made with milk, butter or cream, and bread crumbs and flavored with onion, salt, cloves, mace, pepper, and bay leaf. Fat from the Christmas roast is often added too. Recipe HERE
The Christmas meal is always accompanied by Christmas Crackers. These crackers are a segmented cardboard tube wrapped in a bright (often sparkly) twist of paper with the overall effect of looking like a giant sweet. There’s a prize in the central chamber (a toy, a puzzle, often accompanied by a joke or brain teaser written on a slip of paper), and of course a paper crown or silly paper hat folded inside. The cracker is pulled apart by two people, each holding an outer chamber, splitting the cracker unevenly. One person ends up with the central chamber and prize. The split is accompanied by a snapping or cracking sound produced by an inset tab like a cap for a cap gun.
After the finishing the Christmas meal, it’s traditional to gather around the television and watch the Queen’s Speech to the nation. It’s a review of the year past and good wishes for the year going forward. George V in 1932 started this tradition over the radio when it was, of course, called the King’s speech.
Also part of grand English Christmas tradition is the race to be the UK’s Official Christmas Number One hit. The race commenced in 1952 when Al Martino first claimed bragging rights with his recording Here in my Heart. You may remember this race being a plot point in Love Actually when Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) wins with the song Christmas is All Round. This clip looks ridiculously sexist now, especially in light of recent events. The Christmas Number One race is quite a big deal starting in November with the winner announced in the week in which Christmas falls.
I love joining in these new/old traditions. Bristol is a wonderful place to celebrate the festive holiday season!