Kage Baker – like all of us pseudo, semi, by inclination, marriage, adoption and osmosis English people – wondered at the etymology and provenance of Boxing Day. While most Americans have barely heard of the holiday of December 26th, Kage was the sort of kid who read English history and childrens stories; you can’t make it through E. Nesbitt or Wind In The Willows – let alone Charles Dickens – without discovering Boxing Day.
Asking the grown ups what it meant only produced the old jokes about it being the day you throw out all the boxes, or return them to the stores, or put the Christmas decorations back into them … but all this was patently untrue in our house. It took days to clean up the tide of wrapping paper and boxes. No one ever returned anything that fell short of lethal; anything received fit somebody. And the decorations had been known to stay up until Valentine’s Day on busy years.
Mama, though, born of genuine Southern aristocracy, recalled that it was the custom to send the servants home with boxes of left-overs and old clothes. My Welsh grandfather and my Boston Irish grandfather both knew that the (legal) boxing season started the day after Christmas; relatives born in the 19th century are an extraordinary boon to the budding historian. Some basic research turned up the fascinating fact that Good King Wencelas in fact does his good deed on St. Stephen’s Day – which is December 26th.
Further research over the years ultimately revealed, though, that not even the English are entirely sure where the name originates. And the customs associated with the day are many and diverse. It’s true that the boxing season once started on the day. So does horse racing. In this modern age, rugby associations tend to schedule the first full game roster on December 26th, as well. So there is a wide sports association, of which no part has anything to do with actual boxes.
There is a long tradition of opening church poor boxes on December 26th and distributing their largess to the poor. Servants took boxes to work with them the day after Christmas to make it easier for the boss to give them leftovers (just like Mama said). In England, public places kept boxes about during the Christmas season for random donations and then gave away what they got the day after Christmas – the gentlemen asking Scrooge to “subscribe to the poor” in A Christmas Carol are apparently part of this tradition. I’d have thought all this charity would have done the poor more good before Christmas, but there was a class-conscious Victorian habit of only giving presents to the poor after you give them to your equals: goodies to friends and families on The Big Day, then gifts to the lower classes the next day.
Although, in medieval and Elizabethan times, the English nobility exchanged gifts on New Year’s Day, while the poor still got charitable distributions on the Feast of Stephen. But that was before the little mix up in (maybe) 1582, occasioned when Pope Gregory changed all the dates from the Julian to the eponymous Gregorian calendar. All the dates moved 10 to 7 days then – depending on whether your parish priest or landlord had any clear idea of what the date had been to start with – and so Christmas, New Year’s and St. Stephen’s Day all got a little bit confused … as did all their celebrants. Presents were clearly a part of the whole season, though, and people kept right on giving them.
Even the Romans have been blamed for starting the Boxing Day tradition – although no one seems to know quite why and how they might have done so. In England, the Romans ultimately get blamed for almost everything. What they didn’t do, the Druids did. But I’ve never heard of any Boxing Day traditions attributed to the Druids, unless you want to consider that one of the strewing herbs for the winter season is traditionally boxwood …
The bottom line is, nobody knows. Or everyone knows. The maze of scholarship here leads not to the center but to one of several centers – lots of quiet places with tidy lawns whereon to sprawl and eat leftover Christmas sweeties and wonder idly what day it is anyway.
And in that time-honored tradition I am now going to go evict the cat from the box where my Christmas presents are stored, retrieve the shortbread and my new book, and curl up for a good read.
Happy Boxing day, everyone.