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Day 362 - Boxing Day

Monday, December 26, 2011

The following is a pre-recorded blog.

Several years ago I worked at one of the historic country estates near here. One of the tours I gave was called the 'Below Stairs Tour.' The tour focused on the service areas, and included the kitchens, the laundry house, the dairy, and even some of the old servants' bedrooms.

At the time, the explanation I was given for Boxing Day is that, since the aristocrats wanted their fine feast prepared and served by the staff, in return the staff were always awarded the day after Christmas as a holiday. To make sure everyone stuck around and did a good job, the master of the estate would give out the 'Christmas Boxes' on December 26th.

The higher your rank and seniority, the more valuable your Christmas gifts would be. The lowliest servants were people like the skivvies - maybe a 10-year-old girl - and the newest grooms or stablehands - often as young as eight. Her Christmas box might be a new apron, maybe five pounds' bonus, and all kinds of leftover goodies, like Christmas cake and ham, to take home to her family. The groom would get a new pair of boots, and money, and the same kind of makings for a feast with his family.

The top servants - people like the head butler, the estate steward, the housekeeper - would get really nice Christmas boxes. Men might get a bottle of fine Scotch whiskey, imported cigars, perhaps a bonus of �100, and gifts of food such as venison, pheasant, and smoked salmon. For the senior female servants, there would be beautiful lawn handkerchiefs, laces and ribbons, French soap, and money bonuses. They'd also get dainty treats such as petits-fours and bonbons, and perhaps a fine assortment of teas.

Even though people working in other professions didn't receive Christmas boxes, the term 'boxing day' came into general usage, and now, Boxing Day is an official holiday in the UK as well as in some other countries (Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, et al.).

That's the way it was told to me. But you know sometimes I just can't leave it at that, no matter how creditable the source. I started digging.

Several references state that the term Boxing Day can be traced back to the Middle Ages, and that it has to do with Saint Stephen's Day - the 26th of December - being a day when churches would take up special collections and open their 'poor boxes' to distribute money to the poor. Eventually, by the time of the Restoration (mid-1600s) the 'charity' had extended to gratuities to tradesmen and merchants, and perhaps even some politicians. (Nowhere is the word 'bribe' mentioned!) Perhaps that's why we give an annual Christmas tip to the paperboy.

That the church tradition of Saint Stephen's Day and the Victorian largesse to servants merged makes good sense to me. There are still a number of holidays in Merrie Olde that have origins back a millennia or more, many of them based on now-obscure church holy days such as Candlemas and Michaelmas. I find it eminently believable that Saint Stephen's Feast Day evolved into the Boxing Day celebrated in many countries steeped in Olde English culture.

To wit:

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath'ring winter fuel.

'Hither, page, and stand by me - if thou know'st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?'
'Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes' fountain.'

'Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.'
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind's wild lament and the bitter weather.

'Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.'
'Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly.
Thou shalt find the winter's rage freeze thy blood less coldly.'

In his master's steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing:
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

* * *

Once again I am reminded to count my blessings and share the bounty with those less fortunate. So should we all.

Goodnight, Sparklers, wherever you are!

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  • no profile photo CD8603687
    Thank you for this,I read this on the calendar and wondered what that meant,now I know! I asked my dh what it was and he said,he was kidding of course,"the day after people are returning Christmas gifts and boxing,like fighting for the best deals".It was suppose to be funny, emoticon I just nodded my head,Men,oh dear,lol! emoticon Diana
    3353 days ago

    Comment edited on: 12/31/2011 6:40:18 PM
    Yes, very interesting and as one who lived in England, I never fully understood. Here, boxing day is the day we take all the boxes filled with stuff we didn't want back to the store. Although we don't call it boxing day. I do appreciate giving to the poor and there seem to be plenty of poor these days. THanks, enjoyed it!
    3357 days ago
    Very interesting... thanks for the education!
    3357 days ago
    Well thank you for the information!! THat was a great lesson!
    3357 days ago
    very interesting
    3357 days ago
    Very informative. I knew it was Boxing Day in England but did not know the background!
    3357 days ago
    Interesting story thanks for the info. You are so right I guess we should all count our blessings daily.
    3357 days ago
    Thanks for the info. The question came up over dinner yesterday.
    3357 days ago
    Thanks for the info. The question came up over dinner yesterday.
    3357 days ago
    I just heard the term the other day and had no idea what it meant.Thanks
    3358 days ago
    I was born and raised in England Many of my relatives worked in these houses, one aunt a cook and my mother worked there for a very short while. In the early 20th century there was little generosity towards the servants in most of the houses but the name reamains just as you said. 5 pounds and bottles of whisky would be very rare.
    After the way my relatives talked about it that seems excessive but that was what I was taught from my family expaeriences was what it was about. We never spoke of Christmas GIFTS, we always asked what Christmas box would you like. We loved Boxing Day much more than Christmas since that was the gifting day. Pat in Maine
    3358 days ago
    As a long-time Anglo-phile I love seeing your colonial ex-patriot views from living in the Isles! I love the concept of Boxing Day, and only the geeks among us "over here" especially mid-USA know its significance.

    I take great glee in reshaping such traditions into my own... Boxing Day has become a bit of my own "goodwill donation" and end-of-year charitible contribution day. And *this* year, thanks to the timing of Christmas on a Sunday, I even got it off work!
    3358 days ago
    Love it....

    and your right...no where was the word "bribe" ever mentioned.....
    3358 days ago
  • no profile photo LATTELEE
    Thanks, very interesting
    3358 days ago
    Interesting story.
    3358 days ago
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