Happy Boxing Day English holiday: Why one day for presents when two will get the job done?

December 26, 1997

ST. STEPHEN, the proto-martyr, was stoned to death for his Christian faith in 33 A.D. It is accidental that this saint's day, which happens to be Dec. 26, became the most festive and secular part of the Christmas season in some parts of the world.

By mid-19th century, Christmas had become in England a warm, family-oriented celebration of material well-being for the comfortable classes, as any reader of Dickens knows. The truly religious part of the holiday was got out of the way in evening services Dec. 24.

But the material Christmas left out those without means who served the upper and middle classes. So the institution of Christmas boxes was born. Tradesmen's apprentices would come by comfortable homes on Dec. 26 for theirs. Christmas boxes contained gifts, food or money, preferably money. Some thought it extortion. The well-off family would also present Christmas boxes to their servants, who had enjoyed no Christmas below stairs on Dec. 25 while serving the festivities above.

And that was how Dec. 26, St. Stephen's Day, came to be Boxing Day, the second day of Christmas, a two-day holiday in England. Some scholars trace the institution to the ancient Romans' tradition of giving and receiving presents at the season of Saturnalia. Boxing Day receives such current expression in the Colonies, bequeathed the blessings of English civilization and culture, as Junkanoo parades of masked and costumed revelers in the Bahamas.

One place that Boxing Day did not catch on, however, was Scotland. There, Christmas was first disapproved as too frivolous, and then limited to one day. The Scots fancied a riotous New Year's instead, which could take days to get over. The English, with two-day Christmases, never noticed New Year's.

But as the Act of Union of 1707 continues to sink in, those two nations have begun to trade folkways. The result, beginning in the south of England but inching northward, is a ten-day or two-week Christmas for many firms, resembling school holidays. Since employees were planning to have flu before Christmas lasting past New Year's, the reasoning went, let them.

This obscures the real purpose of Boxing Day for many: It kicks off the post-Christmas sales season in the shops, which is the truly joyous and participatory part of the holiday season for many people in the great cities of the British Isles. (Growing here, too.)

Whatever, a happy Boxing Day to each and every one!

Pub Date: 12/26/97

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