So What is This “Boxing Day” Thing?
Nostalgia will always paint a brighter picture of times past, so of course Christmases from my childhood and early adulthood spent in Britain will seem better, but there is something that definitely makes the Holiday season in Britain, and other Commonwealth countries, better than my Christmas experiences in the United States, and that is Boxing Day!
To many citizens of the USA, Boxing Day is somewhat of a mystery, and many will mistake it for having some sort pugilistic origin or practice, and given the more recent developments in Britain for this day now being the equivalent of America’s “Black Friday” sales the day after Thanksgiving, there might well be fisticuffs over some of the bargains to be found in British stores on December 26th. According to my memories, British stores never used to be open on Boxing Day, and the sales were reserved for New Year’s Day . . . this change saddens me as Boxing Day in Britain used to be like Christmas Day Part 2.
There are several theories as to the origin of the holiday, but the earliest recorded definition of Boxing Day dates back to the 1830’s from the Oxford English Dictionary, “The first week-day after Christmas-day, observed as a holiday on which post-men, errand-boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas-box.” The term “Christmas Box” however, dates back to the 1600’s, “A present or gratuity given at Christmas: in Great Britain, usually confined to gratuities given to those who are supposed to have a vague claim upon the donor for services rendered to him as one of the general public by whom they are employed and paid, or as a customer of their legal employer; the undefined theory being that as they have done offices for this person, for which he has not directly paid them, some direct acknowledgement is becoming at Christmas.” This tradition stems further still back to the Middle Ages when the day after Christmas was the day to give to the less fortunate, with possible reference to the “Alms Box” in churches where donations for the poor were collected.
An entry in Samuel Pepys’s diary from December 19th, 1663 describes the form of Boxing Day tradition that became largely associated with Victorian practices in which servants of the wealthy were given the day after Christmas off in order to be with family; the employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts and bonuses, and sometimes leftover food. Essentially Boxing Day was therefore the working class’s opportunity to celebrate Christmas after having spent the previous day taking care of their employers. There are also various tales from Victorian England of Boxing Day being a day of role reversal in which the wealthy would treat the servants to a banquet and act as servants to the servants; of course, despite this one meal role-reversal, the servants would be foolish not to be on their best behavior seeing as come December 27th the status quo would return to normal. One can almost imagine this being a painfully awkward time for servants having to indulge their master’s feel good gesture while doing nothing to create a faux pas and risk termination of employment.
Fast forward to 20th century Britain, and Boxing Day becomes more a day to relax after the stresses of Christmas dinner and other such holiday demands, eat left overs, and visit friends to exchange presents. My experience was that Christmas Day was spent with family, and that Boxing Day was spent with close friends, but roll into the 21st century and it would appear that retail sales have done much to bring the British public back into the high street rather than neighbors’ houses. There are some areas, however, that continue to hold Boxing Day as a holiday in high regard; in some areas of Canada, particularly in Atlantic Canada and parts of Northern Ontario, most retailers are prohibited from opening on Boxing Day, either by provincial law or municipal bylaw, or instead by informal agreement among major retailers to provide a day of relaxation following Christmas Day.
Boxing Day has the ability to make Christmas a 48 hour event, and in memories that I feel compelled to challenge, the Holidays of my childhood in Britain actually felt like a week long affair as many offices and stores would close for the whole week between Christmas and New Year’s Day; a magical week in which people spent time with each other rather than the hum-drum of commerce that seems too good to have actually been real. Perhaps that is why for me, Boxing Day holds far more nostalgia than Christmas Day.