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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Boxing Clever

It is Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, the day when the Western world collectively wakes up at 10 a.m., looks at the time, groans and says 'Sod it, 15 more minutes...', rolls over and goes back to sleep for an hour. There is literally nothing going on, no shops open, and everyone is regretting the excesses of the day before - the turkey, the thirteen different side dishes, the Christmas Pud/Trifle/Cheesecake/whatever, and of course, the mass quantities of adult beverages, and not forgetting the mass quantities of cocoa and coffee and tea (which are required in between meals and adult beverages in order to stay awake from the first holler of "Santa came!" at 4 a.m. to the last gasp of decent TV at around 11:30 p.m.). As I look around me, I see three boys either playing Xbox, computer games or watching Toy Story 3 on the telly, all in their jammies or other relaxing attire, Laura taking a well-earned soak in the tub (she's still got a case of the crud, bless her cotton socks) and myself sitting cross-legged on the bed in my relaxi-pants and bummy old t-shirt, composing this post on my poor old laptop. How old is it? Well, in computer years, it's from the Late Cretaceous.

So why is it Boxing Day? Who named it that and why? We've all heard various explanations of the term over the years, but now I have all this computing power at my fingertips, and a day with nothing much to do, I can search for the truth.

These are some of the explanations of the term, none of which are definitive.

During the Age of Exploration, when great sailing ships set off to discover new land, A Christmas box was a good luck device. It was a small container that priests placed on each ship while still in port. Crewmen, to ensure a safe return, dropped money in the box. It was then sealed and kept on board for the entire voyage. If the ship came home safely, the crew gave the box to the priest in exchange for the saying of a Mass of thanks. The Priest kept the box sealed until Christmas, and then opened it to share the contents with the poor.

An 'Alms Box' was placed in every church on Christmas Day, into which worshippers placed a gift for the poor of the parish. These boxes were always opened the day after Christmas, which may be why that day became known as Boxing Day.

During the late 18th century, Lords and Ladies of the manor "boxed up" leftover food, or sometimes gifts, and distributed them the day after Christmas to household servants and tenants on their lands. Many poorly paid workers had to work on Christmas Day and took the following day off to visit family. As they prepared to leave, employers presented them with these Christmas boxes.

The tradition of giving money to workers continues today. It is customary for householders to give small gifts or monetary tips to regular visiting trade people (the milkman, dustman, coalman, paper boy etc.) and, in some work places, for employers to give a Christmas bonus to employees. Samuel Pepys mentioned this tradition in his diary entry for 19th December 1663,and it is referred to widely in Victorian literature.

The European tradition dates to the Middle Ages, but the exact origin is unknown. Some claim it dates to the late Roman/early Christian era when metal boxes placed outside churches collected special offerings tied to the Feast of Saint Stephen. You may remember this is the date upon which "Good King Wenceslas", who was Duke of Bohemia in the early 10th century, was surveying his land when he saw a poor man gathering wood in the middle of a snowstorm. Moved, the King gathered up surplus food and wine and carried them through the blizzard to the peasant's door. The alms-giving tradition has always been closely associated with the Christmas season, but King Wenceslas' good deed came the day after Christmas, when the English poor received most of their charity.

So there you have it. Or rather, you don't.

In recent years we've become all Americanized here what with the advent of 24-hour shopping and such, and so many stores have decided to open on Boxing Day (a shame really, I can't help but feel). As a result, there is some anticipation of Boxing Day sales, much like the post-Thanksgiving sales in the USA. Ugh.

There are some rather grisly customs associated with this day also: there's the traditional Boxing Day hunt.

Horse riders dressed in red and white riding gear, accompanied by a number of dogs called foxhounds, chase the fox through the countryside in the hope of tiring it out. Eventually the hunters hope the fox will be so tired that the dogs will be able to catch it and kill it. Many animal welfare campaigners object to fox hunting saying it is cruel to kill a fox in this way, while many participants view it as a crucial part of rural history in England, vital for conservation, and a method of pest control. In November 2004, MPs voted to ban hunting with dogs in England and Wales. As from 18 February 2005 hunting with dogs became a criminal offence (although it is still legal to exercise hounds, chase a scent and flush out foxes to be shot). Myself, I don't know where I stand on this one. While I object to animal cruelty of any kind, and disagree with it being any kind of 'pest control', I must say it is rather visually stunning to see all the riders on their gorgeous horses dressed in red and white, and is one of those amazing images that is burned into your brain. If they could just get them together like that and get them to do something nice and innocuous, like having a race, rather than killing a fox, I'd be all for it. The hounds would be nice and tired out and everyone will have had a fun day, and of course the brandy at the end would still be available.... ah well.

It is unlucky to kill a wren on any day apart from Boxing Day. Hunting of the Wren on Boxing Day was once a popular activity in England. Groups of young boys known as 'Wren boys' would hunt a wren and then tie the dead bird to the top of a pole, decorated with holly sprigs and ribbons. With blackened faces, the group would sing at houses in hopes for coins, gifts or food.

"The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
On St Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
We hunted him far and hunted him near
And found him under the bushes here.
Hurrah, my boys, hurrah!
Hurrah, my boys, hurrah!
Knock at the knocker and ring at the bell,
And give us a copper for singing so well."

Those that gave money to the boys would receive a feather from the wren as thanks. The collected money was then used to host a village dance.
This odd, if not downright bizarre,  ritual was not restricted to England. It was prevalent in some continental countries on Boxing Day as well as the Isle of Man, Wales and Ireland. People are strange, eh?

Anyway... I've got a roast beef cooking nice and slowly in the oven, and of course there are plenty of leftovers from yesterday. I have no plans to leave the house, and I have hopefully enlightened you all a little bit. Have a Happy Boxing Day, and see ya later.

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