Working Class Life in the 1940s and 50s – Christmas Cake and Pudding
In the weeks leading up to Christmas my mam, the lady in the photo above, would prepare her Christmas cake. She would bake a rich fruit cake and would put marzipan and icing on. This would not happen all in one day, making a Christmas cake took time.
Our Christmas cake would have the same decorations put on it year after year. We had a snowman, a Santa, a sleigh and a tiny Christmas tree. Round the edge of the Christmas cake went a fringed decorative band with a Christmas scene on it.
Shortages and Substitutes
The traditional Christmas cake and Christmas Pudding for most the 40s and a part of the 50s was a bit of a rarity. This was because of the shortages of the ingredients needed to make both the cake and the pudding.
Almost all the ingredients needed both for the Christmas cake and the pudding were on ration. Our rations were just enough to live on day to day. So having to put some by for none essentials like cakes and puddings was very difficult.
During the war and for a few years after we had to substitute many ingredients. For example: A recipe for marzipan used mashed potato almond essence and lemon juice. I personally would rather do without the marzipan.
Once the war ended things did not go back how things were before the war straight away, in some areas it never would. Where rationing was concerned it did not finish when the war finished. The war finished in 1945 but rationing continued on until 1954.
It is interesting that bread which was not rationed during the war went on ration after the war.
A Ration Book
Stir Up Sunday
Our Christmas in the 40s and 50 had a lot more to do with the church than it does today. The reason for the season celebrations played a bigger part in Christmas than it does today.
Mum's Christmas preparations would begin on Stir Up Sunday. Stir up Sunday was the day when most people made a start on their Christmas Pudding and Christmas cake.
Stir Up Sunday got its name because the opening words of the Collect or lesson for the day in church are.
"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; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
In the Church of England Stir Up Sunday is on the Sunday before Advent Sunday. So it's the opening words of the Collect that gives Stir up Sunday its name. Sadly it is nothing to do with stirring Christmas pudding.
But I always thought we called it that because we gave the Christmas pudding mixture a stir that day. The name Stir up Sunday does fit in well though with the tradition of giving the pudding a stir too.
Baking the Cake
Now my mum was not much of a baker. Mum was a good cook but because she was also a working mum she didn't have the time to do more than she needed to.
Even though my mum was a working mum she still made all our meals from scratch. Partly this was due to the fact most processed foods were not around then. Also back in the 40s and 50s almost everybody had to cook their meals from scratch.
The only baking mum did would be on a Sunday. Sunday was when she would make a crumble or a pie for our pudding. Because a Sunday roast wasn't thought a proper dinner with out a pudding for afters.
So come Stir up Sunday my mum would first start preparing her Christmas cake. She would bake a rich fruit cake but not decorate it.
My mum would not put the marzipan and icing to decorate the cake for about another 3 weeks. Making a Christmas cake would not happen all in one day, because this kind of cake took time to mature.
Once mum had baked the cake she would let it cool. When it had cooled mum would wrap the cake in greaseproof paper and place in a big cake tin. After a week she would take the cake out the tin and unwrap it so she could feed the cake with a little brandy.
She fed the cake by poking holes in the top of the cake with a skewer. Then she would drizzle a tablespoon or two of brandy into the holes she had poked. Mum would then wrap the cake back up and put back in the cake tin. Mum fed the cake once a week until it was time to ice the cake. Feeding the cake made the cake beautifully moist.
When mum fed a cake like this, once she iced it, that cake will still be edible years later. My wedding cake was made this way and I kept the top tier for a Christening cake for when I had my first child.
After mum had put the Christmas cake in the oven she would then start making the Christmas pudding.
When mum made the pudding each member of the family would give the pudding a stir with the wooden spoon and make a wish. We all had a go at stirring the pudding so we would have good luck.
We would first give the pudding a stir one way then we would reverse the direction and give it another stir. The way we stirred had meaning behind it. We stirred in one direction to represent the Wise Men coming from the East bringing gifts to Jesus at his birth. We stirred in the opposite direction to represent the Wise Men returning home.
We enjoyed the tradition of each of us taking turn to give the pudding a stir. This tradition made us feel like we were taking part in something special. This made our Christmas pudding and Christmas cake feel special.
We never took part in stirring any other pudding. The stiring made this pudding stand out from any other pudding.
The cake and the pudding were very rich and we made them quite a long time before Christmas day. We needed to make them in advance because they needed time to mature.
The ingredients for the mixture were basically the same for both the cake and the pudding. But the end results were very different from each other.
The pudding and cake contain many of the same ingredients. Flour, sugar, dried fruits, sultanas, raisins, currants mixed candied peel/fruit, and brandy. But the pudding and cake are very different because of the way we make them.
We bake Christmas cake in the oven. After we bake it and it has cooled we put layer of marzipan on top. Then we cover the cake and marzipan with a layer of Royal Icing.
Whereas the pudding is much simpler we steam or boil it and we have nothing more to do to it.
Christmas puddings are traditionally supposed to contain 13 ingredients. The 13 ingredients represents Jesus and his 12 disciples.
During the next few weeks the pudding like the cake could be fed too. But because we steam our puddings mum thought ours was moist enough.
Plus on Christmas day when dad served the Christmas pudding he would pour brandy over it and set it on fire. Dad brought the flaming pudding to the table and mum thought that was more than enough Brandy.
Why I Ate My Pudding
As a child I found that the Christmas pudding was way too rich for me and I didn't like the taste that much. But there was no way that I was not going to eat some.
Why would I eat something that I didn't particularly like? That's easy I'd eat some because it was a tradition to hide silver threepenny bits in the pudding.
Mum would wrap the coins in a little piece of greaseproof paper so they would not taint the taste of the pudding.
Any coins we found in our piece of pudding we got to keep. Mum made sure that there was always a couple in me and my brother's piece of Christmas pudding. So there was no way I was not going to have my piece.
But I was always torn, I didn't want too much pudding because I didn't like the taste that much. But I did want a big enough piece to have a chance to find the hidden silver coins.
In those days if it went on your plate you had to make sure you could eat it. One of my dad's sayings as you helped yourself to some food was “Make sure your eyes are not bigger than your belly.”
A Silver Threepence
Away You Go Till Next Year
Once we had cut the Christmas cake we kept in a big tin which kept it fresh until we had eaten the last piece. The cake was so rich we only ate small pieces at a time so it could last for week.
When we cut the cake we would take off the decorations and the decorative band and put them away again until it was time to make the next Christmas cake.