Wednesday, December 21, 2016

What is Boxing Day?

19th century street scene on Boxing Day in England
Boxing Day by George Cruikshank 

As an immigrant to the U.S. from England, one of the most perplexing questions I’ve had to answer is “What is Boxing Day?” Growing up in England I never questioned why the day after Christmas, December 26, is a holiday too. It just is, in the way we take for granted the traditions we grow up with. I had some vague notion that it had to do with putting the empty boxes from Christmas gifts away in the attic, though we never actually did this ourselves. I also associated it with Dickens, and thought it probably originated in Victorian times. All I knew for sure is that it had nothing at all to do with the sport of boxing. So I had to do some research to come up with a satisfactory answer to Americans' questions. It turned out to be true that actual boxes are involved, but not in the way I thought.
Church alms box
Alms Box, All Saints Parish,
Moulton, Lincolnshire
attr. Richard Croft

The origin of the Boxing Day holiday goes back to early medieval times. Traditionally it was on December 26 that the alms boxes kept in churches to collect money for the poor were  opened and the contents distributed. The word “alms” has a very ancient history as I discovered by consulting the online Oxford English Dictionary. Originating with post-classical Latin and the Old English “aelmyssen” the word means “charitable relief given to the poor or needy usually in the form of money or food."

The probable reason December 26 was chosen for opening the alms boxes goes back even further in history. December 26 is the Feast Day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose story is told in the Acts of the Apostles. He was appointed one of seven deacons chosen to distribute food to the poor. 

In one of the earliest literary references to Boxing Day, Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diary on December 19, 1663:
"Thence by coach to my shoemaker’s and paid all there, and gave something to the boys’ box against Christmas."
In the early 18th century, Jonathan Swift grumbled about the amount of giving required of him:
“I shall be undone here with Christmas boxes. The rogues of the coffee-house have raised their tax, every one giving a crown, and I gave mine for shame, besides a great many half-crowns to great men’s porters.”
But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first mention of Boxing Day in literature was indeed by Charles Dickens. In The Pickwick Papers we find the rather obscure reference: “no man ever talked in poetry ‘cept a beadle on boxin’ day.”

By Dickens’ time, December 26 had evolved from a day when only the church distributed alms to a day when the “wealth or rank possessing” gave boxes of leftover foods and money to their servants. Servants and other lowly workers were required to work on Christmas Day so Boxing Day became their own traditional holiday. This led inevitably to complaints by censorious Victorians about the lower orders drinking and carousing in an unseemly manner!

Fox hunters and their dogs
Saltersgate Farmers Boxing Day Hunt
attr. David Ward

Although the sport of boxing itself has nothing to do the day, other sports are traditional on Boxing Day. In the countryside there are annual fox hunting meets (often accompanied by animal rights protests) and horse racing, while armchair sportsmen watch soccer matches. The more adventurous participate in 
Dips, swimming in the cold sea, sometimes in fancy dress. Modern times have also seen the rise of the sport of shopping. Boxing Day is the busiest shopping day of the year in England, with mobs of shoppers stampeding into stores as Americans do on Black Friday. We can be glad that some Boxing Day traditions have fallen by the wayside, such as the medieval practice of horse bleeding described in this poem by Thomas Naogeorgus:

Then followeth Saint Stephens day, whereon doth every man
His horses jaunt and course abroad as swiftly as he can
Until they doe extreemely state, and than they let them blood,
For this being done upon this day, they say doth do them good
And keepes them from all maladies and sicknesse through the yeare.

A modern movement to return Boxing Day to the spirit of St. Stephen encourages charitable giving.

Here are some online resources to help in choosing a reputable charity from our Nonprofits & Charities guide:

  • Charity Watch - A list of top-rated charities that spend 75% or more of their donations on programs.
  • Charity Navigator - A star system rating of over 8,000 charities.
  • Giving Wisely - This resource from the Maryland Secretary of State includes a searchable database of charities.
  • Montgomery County Volunteer Center - This Montgomery County Government resource lists local charities and the types of donations they accept.

These books in the MCPL collection include information on Boxing Day:

Whichever tradition you follow, may you enjoy this holiday season!

 Rita T.

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