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Happy Saint Stephen’s Day

In many countries celebration is far from over once Christmas has come and gone. December 26 is observed as Boxing Day, an official holiday in the UK, former British colonies, and many European countries. When Boxing Day falls on the weekend, as it does this year, the subsequent Monday is observed as a holiday.

There are varied origin stories for Boxing Day. Many of them relate to the British aristocracy’s proclivity for giving gifts or charitable donations to the less fortunate – either their servants, once their own celebration was over and employees were allowed to get some time off; or filling the donation boxes of churches with food and other supplies for the poor.

But the European tradition of giving money and other gifts to those in need or in  service positions dates as far back as the Middle Ages. Some countries call the day after Christmas Saint Stephen’s Day in honor of the first Christian martyr stoned to death in AD 36. Saint Stephen was known for serving the poor, making charity and the distribution of alms a fitting way to celebrate his feast day. Another story, immortalized in the Christmas Carol “Goode King Wenceslaus”, refers to the 10th Century Duke of Bohemia noticing a poor man trying to gather firewood in a blizzard when he was out surveying his lands on the “feast of Stephen,” the day after Christmas. He was moved to go to the man’s house with a box of food, wine, and other items.

In Ireland, where the custom used to be for “wrenboys” to kill a small bird, tie it to a pole decorated with holly and ribbons, and go door-to-door singing the “Wren Song” and asking for money, food, or small gifts, the day was referred to as Wren Day. Reputedly, tradition said that it was bad luck to kill a wren except on the feast of St. Stephen. Sparing the birds today, parades led by people with coal-blackened faces dressed up in wrenboy costumes made of straw, or wearing women’s dresses, mark the festivities. The revelers sing carols and ask for donations to charity. Similar practices occur on the Isle of Man and in parts of Wales. Sylvie Muller writes in more detail of the folklore of the wren and Wren Day in a scholarly article for the Journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society.

While not generally observed in the United States, Massachusetts Governor William Weld in 1996 declared December 26 as Boxing Day in that state in response to efforts of a local coalition of British citizens. Unfortunately, it did not gain stature as an employee holiday. The 26th marks the opening of the season for people to return unwanted gifts for exchanges or refunds and to redeem gift cards in the United States. When I first heard of Boxing Day growing up here in the US, I thought in fact that the name had something to do with boxing up these unwanted presents for return.

Observance of Boxing Day has been inconsistent. It is an important day for sport, especially in the horse racing, rugby, football (soccer) and cricket worlds. And, indeed, significant boxing matches have taken place on Boxing Day.

The Boxing Day Dip is a charity event in which hundreds of brave souls, many of them in fancy dress, swim in the sea. It occurs in several venues around the UK and Europe. North Sea water temperatures are usually 49F, or 9.5C, and many participants are in only up to their knees. Roaring bonfires meet them upon their retreat.

The 2012 British film Boxing Day, directed by Bernard Rose, addresses the theme embodied by the holiday as a businessman (Danny Huston) and his chauffeur (Matthew Jacobs) drive into the heart of the Rocky Mts in increasingly perilous weather on the day after Christmas. When the journey becomes life-threatening, the businessman must decide how much he is willing to sacrifice for someone less fortunate.

Even if government offices and banks are closed that days, stores are open and, as is increasingly our wont, it is often observed as a day of commercial excess like Black Friday. (Retailers, after all, increasingly need our charitable giving too!) Also like the recent trend with Black Friday, many retailers run sales for several days before or after December 26, often up to New Year’s Eve, branding it as Boxing Week. So far, thankfully, there has not been a trend for retailers to be open on Christmas Day and force their employees to work on that day as there has been on The Day Before Black Friday holiday. There has been a worker’s movement in the UK to ban the opening of shops on Boxing Day to give employees a much needed day off and place an obstacle in the way of the relentless commercialization of the Christmas holiday season. In any case, many British retailers, especially because of emerging American ownership of retail chains, have begun to emphasize the Black Friday tradition instead, leading to a demonstrable drop in British store traffic on Boxing Day and the days after.

An episode in the 10th season of M.A.S.H. has visiting British soldiers attempting to persuade the uni that it was a “Boxing Day tradition” for officers and service members to switch positions and responsibilities for the day. You can kind of see that as a conceptual extension of the original tradition of the aristocracy giving gifts to the servants, I suppose (not that they would ever take it as far as treating places!).

’Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without seeing a traditional Boxing Day pantomime with the kids. Nothing gets you in the festive spirit like watching classic family favourites such as Dick Whittington, Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, Cinderella or Hansel and Gretel. Panto for short is a traditional Christmas play where audience participation is expected. Kids love getting involved by shouting out “It’s behind you” or “Oh no it’s not, Oh yes it is.” All the stars come out to take part and dress up as pantomime dames such as Widow Twankey which is always portrayed by a man. Other well known pantomime characters include her sons Wishy Washy and Aladdin….’ – Paul Denton

Of course in some countries the day is another excuse for copious drinking. Even teetotalers often spend the day in congenial gatherings with family, friends, and feasting. Boxing Day’ s celebratory foods are a mixed bag, coming as they do from English tradition. The BBC has compiled a menu of recipes for Boxing Day brunch including Christmas cake soufflé, cheesy sprout fondue, and several dishes involving mincemeat.

Sausage rolls (New York Times recipe) are also a traditional Boxing Day dish in the UK. Although the concept of savory chopped meat wrapped in dough exists in most cuisines, the British have proudly claimed sausage rolls as their own. An article in The Telegraph suggests that these easy-to-cook, tasty, and greasy items became holiday fare because of upper class families were left to fend for themselves in the kitchen and to find a use for the leftovers on that day.

Sausage Roll myfavouritepastime.com

In a year in which many have been hard hit in unprecedented ways, perhaps December 26 could be a chance to get back to some version of the original intention of the holiday by making sure to give a meaningful gift to someone in need.