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 ï¿½100, 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.
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!