Merry Christmas From Ken Dubrovin
|Some interesting footnotes about Christmas.
Good King Wenceslas' gifts of bread, wine, and
firewood to a poor man whom he observed struggling through the snow took
place "on the Feast of Stephen."
|Few Americans have any inkling
that there even is such a thing as Boxing Day, let alone what the reason
might be for a holiday so named. However, before one concludes we're about
to rag on Americentric attitudes towards other cultures, we should quickly
point out that even though Boxing Day is celebrated in Australia, Britain,
New Zealand, and Canada, not all that many in those countries have much of
a notion as to why they get the 26 of December off. Boxing Day might well
be a statutory holiday in some of those lands, but it's not a well understood
Despite the lively images suggested by the name,
it has nothing to do with pugilistic expositions between tanked-up family
members who have dearly been looking forward to taking a round out of each
other for the past year. Likewise, it does not gain its name from the
overpowering need to rid the house of an excess of wrappings and mountains
of now useless cardboard boxes the day after St. Nick arrived to turn a perfectly
charming and orderly home into a maelstrom of discarded tissue paper.
The name also has nothing to do with returning
unwanted gifts to the stores they came from, hence its common association
with hauling about boxes on the day after Christmas.
|The holiday's roots
can be traced to Britain, where Boxing Day is also known as St. Stephen's
Day. Reduced to the simplest essence, its origins are found in a long-ago
practice of giving cash or durable goods to those of the lower classes. Gifts
among equals were exchanged on or before Christmas Day, but beneficences
to those less fortunate were bestowed the day after.
And that's about as much as anyone can definitively
say about its origin because once you step beyond that point, it's straight
into the quagmire of debated claims and dueling folklorists. Which, by the
way, is what we're about to muddy our boots with.
Although there is general agreement that the
holiday is of British origin and it has to do with giving presents to the
less fortunate, there is still dispute as to how the name came about or precisely
what unequal relationship is being recognized.
At various times, the following "origins" have
been loudly asserted as the correct one:
Centuries ago, ordinary members of the merchant
class gave boxes of food and fruit to tradespeople and servants the day after
Christmas in an ancient form of Yuletide tip. These gifts were an expression
of gratitude to those who worked for them, in much the same way that one
now tips the paperboy an extra $20 at Christmastime or slips the building's
superintendent a bottle of fine whisky. Those long-ago gifts were done up
in boxes, hence the day coming to be known as "Boxing Day."
Christmas celebrations in the old days entailed
bringing everyone together from all over a large estate, thus creating one
of the rare instances when everyone could be found in one place at one time.
This gathering of his extended family, so to speak, presented the lord of
the manor with a ready-made opportunity to easily hand out that year's stipend
of necessities. Thus, the day after Christmas, after all the partying was
over and it was almost time to go back to far-flung homesteads, serfs were
presented with their annual allotment of practical goods. Who got what was
determined by the status of the worker and his relative family size, with
spun cloth, leather goods, durable food supplies, tools, and whatnot being
handed out. Under this explanation, there was nothing voluntary about this
transaction; the lord of the manor was obligated to supply these goods. The
items were chucked into boxes, one box for each family, to make carrying
away the results of this annual restocking easier; thus, the day came to
be known as "Boxing Day."
Many years ago, on the day after Christmas, servants
in Britain carried boxes to their masters when they arrived for the day's
work. It was a tradition that on this day all employers would put coins in
the boxes, as a special end-of-the-year gift. In a closely-related version
of this explanation, apprentices and servants would on that day get to smash
open small earthenware boxes left for them by their masters. These boxes
would house small sums of money specifically left for them.
This dual-versioned theory melds the two previous
ones together into a new form; namely, the employer who was obligated to
hand out something on Boxing Day, but this time to recipients who were not
working the land for him and thus were not dependent on him for all they
wore and ate. The "box" thus becomes something beyond ordinary compensation
(in a way goods to landed serfs was not), yet it's also not a gift in that
there's nothing voluntary about it. Under this theory, the boxes are an early
form of Christmas bonus, something employees see as their entitlement.
Boxes in churches for seasonal donations to the
needy were opened on Christmas Day, and the contents distributed by the clergy
the following day. The contents of this alms box originated with the ordinary
folks in the parish who were thus under no direct obligation to provide anything
at all and were certainly not tied to the recipients by a employer/employee
relationship. In this case, the "box" in "Boxing Day" comes from that one
gigantic lockbox the donations were left in.
Whichever theory one chooses to back, the one
thread common to all is the theme of one-way provision to those not inhabiting
the same social level. As mentioned previously, equals exchanged gifts on
Christmas Day or before, but lessers (be they tradespeople, employees, servants,
serfs, or the generic "poor") received their "boxes" on the day after. It
is to be noted that the social superiors did not receive anything back from
those they played Lord Bountiful to: a gift in return would have been seen
as a presumptuous act of laying claim to equality, the very thing Boxing
Day was an entrenched bastion against. Boxing Day was, after all, about
preserving class lines.
Urban Legends Reference
Pages © 1995-2000 by Barbara and David P. Mikkelson
Christmas, Happy New Year and
Best Wishes from Ken Dubrovin!