Go to Homepage   Boxed ears, Boxed in,
with the Boxing Day Grin

 

Some boys are rich by birth beyond all wants.
Beloved by uncles, and kind, good old aunts.
When Time comes round a Christmas box they bear,
And one day makes rich for all the year
Trad.

"Trad.," notwithstanding, I never knew anyone to get rich from Boxing Day myself, but not for want of trying.

For those who aren't in the know, Boxing Day is the one following Christmas. Officially, it's called St. Stephen's Day. In England, where I come from, it's the first working day after Christmas Day. (What's the point in making Sunday a holiday, eh?)

Memories of those distant days still haunt me. Boxing Day always, in my family, was a time of combined reflection and belated celebration. Reflection on such important matters as, "Oh why did we eat that five pound box of sweets yesterday?" combined with the knowledge that even a whole bottle of Alka Seltzer couldn't help relieve the agony.

Celebration because Boxing Day was the day when distant relatives, particularly those with children, would descend upon our house. The relatives' arrival initiated the final exchange of "pressies," and the long, arduous task of fighting amongst ourselves about who had the best Christmas pressies this year.

These periods of assault, combined with food binges, in-depth games sessions and frequent telling-offs from our moms and dads made Boxing Day a fun day for the children, albeit our parents felt otherwise. I can't remember how many times my parents threatened to box my ears for some misdemeanor or another. Yet the true origin of Boxing Day is another of those events that have faded beyond the reach of legend. Possibly, it began in Roman days when it was traditional to exchange "sacred boughs" during saturnalia. (Personally, I found the latest Batman action figure to be a much more interesting gift.)

The tradition could have started even further back with the ritual of the Celtic Wren Hunt. Usually, it meant bad luck to kill a wren. But on the Celtic festival that corresponded to our Boxing Day, the wren was hunted with great ceremony and paraded on a pole from house to house to bring good fortune to the village for the rest of the year.

Is that what they mean by giving someone "the bird?"

Most scholars, though, agree that Boxing Day, the name and act, were started in Britain. Especially since it is known to have been banned in Britain in the 14th century, although a detailed search failed to reveal the reason for the ban.

The holiday appears to have started as the official day for opening the alms boxes found in most English churches. An alms box is a small box found by the door into which money is placed throughout the year for the poor of the parish. Traditionally these donations were shared amongst the needy the day after Christmas.

This is not a common practice now. Mainly because the boxes are generally forcibly opened more frequently by certain members of the public who feel they would rather have the money sooner.

As usual, the English didn't like to leave everything to the hands of the clergy, (most of the clergy were affiliated to Rome anyway, and did we really trust the Pope?) By the middle of the 19th century, it became commonplace for the squires and lords of large estates to give "boxes" to their servants on December 26. These boxes contained food, goods or money. The aristocrats hoped these gifts would also ensure good service from their "staff" during the following year.

The more entrepreneurial of the poor took matters into their own hands by taking small boxes out into the streets and asking for money. This wasn't begging. We were merely sticking to traditions, honestly, Officer.

An over-eagerness of this kind of soliciting finally led to a complete ban on unlicensed street collections 365 days a year in our own century.

Even so the tradition of donation lives on. I can remember my mother religiously passing precious coins to the postman, a bottle of whisky to the dustbin men, and chocs to the milkman every year.

Isn't it good to see that the traditions of our great and distant forebears still holds true in these troubled times? With no other ulterior motive than to make people happy. Besides which, we never got garbage spilled on our lawns.

Stephen Smith