Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Boxing Day—Bonus Brit Holiday

Despite intense advertising and social pressure, not everyone goes shopping on Boxing Day, many simply recover from Chrismas revelry which will make Americans who have to rush back to work intensly jealous.

The Brits and the residents of other former pink blotches on Queen Victoria’s globe like many Americans will spend today storming the malls and shops on what is usually the busiest retail day of the year.  Disgruntled gift recipients hit the refund and exchange desks and spend the gift cards and even old fashion cash that.   But unlike most Yanks they will be doing it on an official National Holiday as a paid day off.  Officially December 26 is just another Bank Holiday.  But Boxing Day is a treasured tradition with long and deep roots.
The celebration in the British Isles owes its origins to the aristocracy, gentry, and wealthy townsmen and their households.  The master would give presents to his servants and staff, who would also have the day off work.  Sometimes the master’s family would even serve meals to their inferiors!  Needless to say, this custom was very popular among the servants, and sometimes observed resentfully by those unaccustomed to either manual labor or generosity.
Regency Boxing Day--A Gentleman and Lady are kind to repectable children.  A Goodwife may have a penny for the watchman.  If he is lucky the urchin sweeping snow in his bare legs might even get a handful of nuts
It is also a remnant of an ancient tradition that may—or may not—go back to the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, when there was a carnival-like turn around with slaves lording over masters for a day.  The tradition continued into the Middle Ages on into Elizabethan times, where it took on the wild excesses of street revelry.
That revelry doomed the whole season when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans took over.  Eventually, Boxing Day restored a controlled dollop of the old festival.  The Church of England gave a religious cover to the day as St. Stephen’s Day. 
Stephen was the Deacon of Jerusalem the earliest days of Christianity known for his charities to the poor.  He was also the first Christian martyr, stoned to death for allegedly preaching the Trinity in the Temple.
The familiar carol Good King Wenceslas is a St. Stephen’s Day song meant for street begging.  In Ireland, the day is still officially called St. Stephen’s Day.

Wren Boys in Dublin, 1933.
It is also known there as Wren’s Day.  Boys in homemade hats and costumes carry a caged wren—or sometime a dead one pierced by a holly sprig—proclaiming it the king of the birds and begging for treats.  Once a fading country custom, in the cities men now re-enact it—often on a pub crawl.
In the Bank Holidays Act of 1871, Parliament recognized Boxing Day as a Bank Holiday—an officially recognized public holiday.  While time off from work was not originally mandatory, but has become nearly universal.
The holiday spread across the Empire and is still official in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other Commonwealth countries.  In South Africa it was re-named The Day of Goodwill in 1994.
Today small gifts are still given trades people and service workers, but in Britain the day has become all about shopping.  It is the biggest shopping day of the year and has been compared to American Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.  Stores mark the day with huge sales.

A Boxing Day Hunt sans fox.  The toffs say the are persecuted and misunderstood.  Poor babies
It is also a day of sport.  Football—that’s soccer to Americansand Rugby leagues hold full schedules of games, teams usually playing their most serious rivals.  There are also prestige horse races and the country gentry mount fox hunts—these days due to a bitterly resented law, sans fox.  The toffs are no longer allowed to chase real fox, but still get to ride to the hounds chasing a scented bait.
So for my friends across the Pond and around the world who celebrate, happy Boxing Day! 

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