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Christmas pudding, steaming hot, pour on the custard, eat the lot!

This weekend I’m sure some of you will be fishing for the wooden spoon and donning the pinny. For this Sunday is Stir-up Sunday, the traditional day to prepare your mincemeat or Christmas pudding for your forthcoming Christmas feast. The origin of the Christmas pudding goes back to medieval England but the Christmas pudding we know today dates from the Victorian era.

By this period, Stir-up Sunday had become an occasion to gather the family, with everyone taking a turn to stir the mixture and make a wish. The tempting smell of the pudding as it steamed away on the stove helped to mark the start of the festive season.

Some of the original quotation slips for the term Stir-up Sunday still survive in the archives of the Oxford English Dictionary. This one, from the British newspaper Daily Chronicle (1904), was sent in by Frederick Furnivall, founder and early editor of the OED. Furnivall was very fond of sending in newspaper cuttings, much to the chagrin of the Delegates of Oxford University Press who felt that newspapers didn’t give the right academic tone for their dictionary.

In response to an edict by the Delegates in 1882, Furnivall replied by letter that ‘Anyone. . . who wants to get at the facts of the living language is continually complaining of the pedantry and incompleteness of our dictionaries and the improbability of getting help from them for a shoal of constructions and words that are in rural folk’s mouths.’

How do we know when Stir-up Sunday occurs?

According to tradition, Stir-up Sunday always falls on the last Sunday before Advent. Well that’s only helpful if you know when Advent begins! So I checked. Advent (from the Latin adventus meaning arrival) begins on the fourth Sunday before December 25th. With a little arithmetic and an up-to-date calendar, you can therefore calculate that the beginning of Advent for 2012 is December 2nd, which makes Sunday November 25th the last Sunday before Advent, hence Stir-up Sunday. Phew – we got there in the end.

The name actually comes from the opening words of the ‘collect’ for the day in the Book of Common Prayer, and only later became associated with making mincemeat. Here you can see the passage as taken from Oxford’s first printing of the King James version of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer in 1675.

But what of collect?

A collect is a short prayer found in western Christian liturgy, given by the minister on behalf of the people, or recited in unison by the whole congregation. It contains five basic components – the address, the doctrine, the petition, the aspiration, and the conclusion. Collect prayers are recited for particular days and events, and are read before the Epistle.

There is some mystery surrounding the exact origin of the term. It comes from the Latin oratio ad collectum (prayer upon assembly), or more simply the Latin collecta, meaning gathering. In its early days this could have related to a prayer given to a gathering of people before attending church, or to a collecting or summing up of thought in a short prayer.

In the First Edition of the OED, chief editor James Murray gives thanks to a Reverend F. E. Warren in his discussion of the etymology. Whilst Warren’s notes themselves are not to be found in the OED archives, a letter to Murray from Warren about the term does survive.

Of stir-ups and mix-ups

Of course, there are several other meanings of ‘stir up’ to be found. Perhaps you are the one to stir up excitement for Christmas by adorning your house with festive lights in mid-October. Maybe you are the one to stir up the presents under the tree whilst trying to find those elusive packages that bear your name. Or could you be the one who likes to stir up the family over that game of charades you insist on playing every Christmas day. Whatever you are stirring up, don’t forget the pudding. My own favourite is Delia Smith’s traditional recipe, which I find particularly tasty and just right for a good stir.