Christmas Comes But Once a Year (and when it does, it’s late…)

Strange as it may seem, our lives don’t stop just because one of us is about to appear on millions of people’s television screens, prancing about in the rain somewhere in south Wales. No, sheep have to be fed and cake has to be eaten. Now I cannot pretend to be a traditionalist in the strict meaning of the term, but certain customs linger on in our lives, largely, I suspect, because we can’t be bothered  do away with them. So they hang around, like an elderly dog or cat, not asking much and happy to receive the occasional pat on the head or scrap of turkey. And of course we’ve all been through the Festive Season, which still retains more than its fair share of rather creaky traditions, one of which is the ritual of starting the Christmas cake on Stir Up Sunday. The day gets its rather strange name from the Collect ordained in the Book of Common Prayer for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity, which falls, I think, sometime in December (Trinity Sunday last year was on May 26th, so you can work it out for yourselves – then get a life). And it goes like this:

‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded.’

Wonderful stuff. And why has ‘plenteous’ slipped out of current use? It’s a splendid, sonorous word. All in all, I love the language of the Book of Common Prayer. The trouble is, it reminds me too strongly, still, of ghastly hours at school attending interminable services, when I’d much rather have been outside, in the sunshine. God, how I loathed chapel on Sunday. But I digress.

Stir Up Sunday was the traditional day you started to make your Christmas cake, subsequently you’d mix it again and add yet more rum and brandy. Then, in most households it would appear at teatime on Christmas Day, bedecked in tinsel and gleaming icing, to loud applause from everyone under thirteen. Teenagers would look bored (but stuff their faces when nobody was looking).

Anyhow, as we’ve grown older, we’ve both admitted that we don’t like marzipan, and that icing sugar is very, very fattening. So about ten years ago, Maisie started to dress our Christmas cakes with crystallized fruit. It’s quite a long job to do well, as each piece has to be glued down and then lightly glazed with syrup, so the job kept getting postponed until the next festival of our year, which is my birthday (January 13th). So that’s when we have our Christmas cake.

Maisie’s skills as a cake decorator have come a long way since one of her earlier efforts (2006) where the fruit are arranged in stiff rows, rather like the opposing armies at the start of the Battle of Waterloo. Now (2012) she is far more adventurous, with neatly cut and pasted flowers,  that resemble a gastronomic mosaic more than a mere cake. I think we’re approaching High Art here. Mark my words, after this tour de force, Grayson Perry will start decorating cakes next…

So I’ll be munching that cake as my alter ego bustles around on the telly. But I know the film well already, so I’ll have the sound turned down and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain will be singing Teenage Dirt Bag. And then a glass of Cava (on special offer at our local Co-Op last week), followed by haggis, sprouts and bashed neaps. Merry Christmas!

2006 cake

The strictly regimented cake of January 2006

2012 cake

This year’s more stylistically assured offering

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