Stir up, stir up our hearts, O Lord. That collect, read out in Anglican churches in early Advent, signals to domestic cooks that it is high time to start stirring up the Christmas pudding. Stir-up Sunday, for my English grandmother, involved getting a few strong-armed children around the big pudding basin and handing them a wooden spoon each. Our reward for vigorous folding and stirring was being allowed, subsequently, to lick bowl and spoon. Just as I always preferred raw cake mixture to cake, so I prized brandy-doused, uncooked pudding to the well-steamed version.
At this time of year, women in families become enslaved by others' expectations. They generally do all the work of Christmas on their own, on top of working outside the home and taking most of the domestic responsibility inside it. One friend of mine goes on strike and refuses to cook Christmas lunch at all. She gives her family sandwiches. Nobody minds, particularly; they all manage to have a good time.
It's not the feast itself you might need help with so much as the food shopping, plus all the ballyhoo of present buying, wrapping and posting, the house decorating, the card signing and addressing. Let alone the extra-special house cleaning, the sorting out where stray guests will sleep, the fetching and adorning of Christmas trees.
As long as I'm with people whose company I've chosen, I love preparing for the midwinter feast. Even when I lived, for 16 years, with vegetarians who required to be dished up Sosmix-flavoured rissoles in order to believe in love, I still managed to enjoy myself. I served a damn good mushroom and
chestnut pate en croute alongside, with onion and red wine gravy.
Now I celebrate Christmas with meat-eaters again, I am not that excited by turkey. Goose is nicer, and just as easy to cook. However, having learned over the years that I can cook well only for people I love, and that I enjoy cooking only meals I want to eat myself, I have become ruthless. If you are cooking roast beast or roast fowl, why wear yourself out preparing lots of different vegetables to go with it? They require you endlessly to hover over them if they are not to go soggy or burn dry. Serve your beast, exquisitely stuffed, with a bunch of watercress tucked under each end, plus a few roast spuds. The horror of overcooked Brussels sprouts can be avoided by refusing to serve them. The labour of stirring and checking bread sauce? Put your feet up and have a gin and tonic instead. So, at the start of Advent, don't bother shopping for (and then chopping up) suet for puddings and mincemeat. Slosh in olive oil instead. Borrow a few children and get them stirring. Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to recognise women's labours at Christmas.