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Stir-Up Sunday

Oh my, it's fruitcake weather!”

~ A Christmas Memory, Truman Capote, 1956

Already?! There's no cake with such a large percentage of admirers and detractors as the ubiquitous holiday fruitcake! Coming early this year, "Stir-up Sunday" is traditionally the Sunday before Advent to begin holiday baking, particularly for plum puddings or soused fruitcakes. Love them or hate them, when a fruitcake contains a good deal of alcohol and sugar it can remain edible for many years! Many antique fruitcakes remain extant and are cherished by their owners. Journalist Russell Baker claimed to be in possession of a fruitcake that a long-dead relative had baked in 1794 as a Christmas gift for President George Washington. Washington allegedly sent it back with a humorous note explaining that it was “unseemly for Presidents to accept gifts weighing more than 80 pounds, even though they were only eight inches in diameter.” Should you prefer the Scottish variation, the Dundee cake, popularized in nineteenth-century Scotland, comes with an apocryphal story regarding its distinctive almond topping. Allegedly, Mary Queen of Scots did not like glacé cherries in her cakes, and so had her cakes made with blanched almonds instead of cherries. 😉 🍰 🍍 🍐 🍋 🍒

Traditionally, Stir-up Sunday is an informal term in Anglican churches for the last Sunday before the season of Advent. It gets its name from the beginning of the collect for the day in the Book of Common Prayer, which begins with the words, "Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people".  But this day has become associated with the pleasant custom of making the Christmas puddings, some of which need a significant time to mature in their alcoholic liquor.

Traditionally, the batter consisted of 13 ingredients representing Christ and his 12 apostles. Silver charms were often added as prizes or puns, as described in Mrs. Beeton’s famous 1923 cookbook.  After the mixture was assembled, each family member (including the servants) took their turn stirring the batter in a clockwise direction; this was to honor the Magi who traveled east to west on their way to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus. A silent wish for the New Year by each participant added mystery to the ritual. Steamed for 4–6 hours and stored for five weeks, the pudding would be decorated with a sprig of variegated holly to ward off witches, doused with liquor and brought flaming to the table. It was believed that all those who ate Christmas pudding made on Stir-up Sunday would receive God’s blessing.

The term "fruitcake" elicits strong opinions from those who eat (or avoid) them, and although December 27th is officially Fruitcake Day, this date is probably more often used to toss out any remaining vestiges of some commercially bought fruitcakes.

As a traditional cake, the earliest recipe for fruitcake comes from  ancient Rome and lists pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins mixed into barley mash. By the Middle Ages, honey, spices, and precious preserved fruits were added.

Fruit cakes soon proliferated all over Europe. Recipes varied greatly in different countries, depending on the available ingredients as well as church regulations forbidding the use of butter, regarding the observance of a fast.  Pope Innocent VIII finally granted the use of butter in a written permission known as the ‘Butter Letter' or 'Butterbrief' in 1490, giving permission to Saxony to use milk and butter in the North German Stollen fruit cakes.

Starting in the 16th century, sugar from the American Colonies and the discovery that high concentrations of sugar could preserve fruits created an excess of candied fruit, thus making fruit cakes more popular.

Many traditional Christmas fruitcakes are round, covered in marzipan, and decorated with white royal icing or fondant.  While store-bought fruitcakes, are known for their green and red candied fruit.

In 1947, the most famous fruitcake in history was made for the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip (now Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh). The official wedding cake was four tiers and stood 9 feet high. A slice of the 68-year-old cake sold at auction for 560 pounds!

Tartan design by the Tartan Contessa

For a history of fruitcake, click the slice! 

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