When is Boxing Day (07.05.2018)
Observed in Countries that are members of the British Commonwealth
Observed on December 26, or the first weekday after Christmas
Observed by Christians
Boxing Day occurs the day after Christmas and is often treated as an extension of Christmas. It is, indeed, a holiday steeped in mystery. When and how it started is not clear, and more widely disputed is how it got its name. The purpose of Boxing Day, however, could not be clearer. Regardless of other local customs, it is a day for giving gifts of money to those who provide services.
Because it falls on the feast day of St.
Stephen-the first martyr canonized by the Catholic Church-Boxing Day is closely associated with St. Stephen’s Day.
Origins and History
The most credible and persistent theories about how Boxing Day started are rooted in the feudal traditions of medieval England. During that period (400–1500 C.E.), a small number of estate owners managed large tracts of land with the help of numerous servants. Christmas was a particularly busy time for the servants, who had to work hard to prepare the households for the festivities. So on December 26 the owners gave them time off to rest and spend time with their own families.
This was also a good time for employers to show their appreciation by giving their servants tips and practical gifts. These gifts usually took the form of clothing, leather goods, salt and spices, homegrown grains for making bread, and dried foods such as meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables. The size of the servant’s family and his or her position in the master’s household determined what and how much was given.
The name of the holiday is believed to have come from the earthenware boxes the masters used to package these gifts, which they left for their servants on Christmas night. The employees broke their boxes open on December 26.
Because the incomes of those who performed services outside the home were very low, the upper class also gave something to snow shovelers, sweepers, and others they considered among the “deserving poor” on Boxing Day. Merchants, too, gave boxes of food and clothing to their employees as end-of-year gifts. By presenting gifts in cash or kind, the more fortunate were offering practical help in the Christmas spirit.
From these beginnings, it eventually became a tradition for apprentices and servants to carry earthenware boxes to their employers’ premises, knowing they would receive something after Christmas. In addition the very poor went houseto-house carrying donation boxes for food and clothing. Structuring the distribution of gifts this way reflected a social order based on class. Gifts were exchanged between people of equal rank before or on Christmas Day while charity for the poor was reserved for the day after. Moreover this form of gift-giving was always a one-way transaction: reciprocity on the part of the less fortunate was not possible.
Boxing Day became associated with religion in the ninth century when the Catholic Church adopted the practice of giving to the poor the day after Christmas. Donations were collected in large, locked donation boxes, the contents of which were distributed by the clergy to the poor on December 26. The practice allowed the church to tap parishioners who were not part of the feudal system for donations.
Another story recounts how Boxing Day was adapted to the needs of ships undertaking hazardous journeys. Each ship carried a donation box. On most ships priests would offer Masses for their safe return in exchange for well-filled donation boxes.
Those interested in a ship’s safe return-whether sailors or passengers-begged money from the wealthy in order to contribute to the fund. Opening the boxes before the ships had docked safely was strictly forbidden. These boxes were known as Christ-Mass (Christmas) boxes.
Boxing Day is also the feast day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He was stoned to death shortly after Jesus’ Crucifixion and prayed for his tormentors as he died. There is a possible historical link between St. Stephen and Boxing Day, aside from coincidence. In the very early days of Christianity there was some dissatisfaction about how alms from the community’s fund were being distributed to the poor. In an effort to resolve the problem, the Apostles chose seven men to oversee how the poorer members of the congregation were taken care of. Of the seven men selected for this duty, St.
Stephen was the first mentioned and best known. In the years following his death the faithful honored his memory by collecting money in small clay containers throughout the year. These containers were broken open on the saint’s feast day, and the money therein was distributed among the poor. The modern practice of saving money in piggy banks stems from this custom.
The popular Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas,” also has its origins in St. Stephen’s Day. Wenceslas (907–35) assumed power in Bohemia in 922 but continued to be governed by Germany’s Emperor Henry I, the Fowler (876–936). The subject of the carol is the generosity of Wenceslas, who took a meal of minced pie to a peasant on St. Stephen’s Day.
When the king, accompanied by his page, carried the food and pine logs to the peasant, the page became cold and fearful in the dark; so Wenceslas told the page to step into his footprints. The page did this, and his feet were warmed.
In Ireland and Wales December 26 is also celebrated as La Fheile Stiofan, the Day of the Wren.
These festivities originated with the ancient Druids, who studied the flight of wrens to predict the future.
Because the birds were considered special, they were offered to the gods as sacrifices. Later, however, they came to be seen as symbols of treachery. It was reported that a chattering wren gave away St.
Stephen’s hiding place when he hid in a bush to escape his enemies. In the 700s accounts circulated that a wren betrayed the Irish soldiers who were fighting the Vikings by eating the breadcrumbs off a Viking drum just as the Irish mounted a night attack on a Viking camp. The sound of the wren pecking at the breadcrumbs awakened the drummer, who in turn alerted the Vikings. These stories were used to justify continued sacrifices of the wren.
On the Day of the Wren (pronounced “wran”), groups of boys would go from house to house singing and dancing, accompanied by bands of musicians. These Wren Boys (also known as Straw Boys or Mummers, depending on the region) wore straw masks and colorful outfits, and the leader of each group carried a dead wren hanging from a pole. (The bird would have been either hunted down or chased, until it died or collapsed from sheer exhaustion.)