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Derek Coleman: Missing Britain's 'Boxing Day'

Dec. 28, 2012 @ 10:20 AM

Christmas is behind us once more and in Britain, the people enjoyed a two-day public holiday instead of the one we get. Dec. 26 over there is called “Boxing Day” and was traditionally the day on which servants, mail carriers, delivery people and store keepers received gifts from the better off in society.

The origin of the name “Boxing Day” is lost in the mists of time. In Europe the practice of giving gifts, food or money to one’s employees and those who are in need on this day can be traced back to well before the 13th or 14th century and this charity is called giving “Christmas boxes” but no one is sure why. It may be because the very early church had metal, clay or wooden boxes outside their doors where worshippers could put gifts to be distributed to the poor on the feast of Saint Stephen, which is Dec. 26.

 In Britain, there are several other theories for where the name came from: One is that it became the tradition that tradesmen would go round their richer customers with a large box on the day after Christmas to collect money or gifts as a reward for their attention and service during the rest of the year; this practice is actually mentioned in an entry in the diary of Samuel Pepys written on Dec. 19, 1663.

Tradesmen collecting gifts may stem from an even older English custom: Because servants would have to work and serve their employers on Christmas Day, the custom was that they were allowed to take the next day off to celebrate and to visit their own home church and their families. When they went, by tradition, they were given a box containing small gifts, money and the food that was left over, to take with them.

Although Dec. 26 is a public holiday, in Britain, Canada, parts of Australia, South Africa and in New Zealand, Boxing Day is also traditionally their equivalent of our Black Friday with huge sales throughout the country. Britain’s trading laws are stricter than ours, but stores still open in the early hours and many record their biggest revenue intake of the year on that day. Indeed, in 2009 it was estimated that one person in every five in the United Kingdom went to the stores on Boxing Day.

Dec. 26 is not just a day for shopping and enjoying time away from work in Britain, it is also a big sporting day. All of the major soccer and rugby clubs will play games and by tradition, in order to avoid excess travel over the holiday for both players and fans, the leagues usually arrange it so that clubs play their local rivals. Horse racing also stages the second most important race of the season, the King George VI Chase, as well as many other race meetings on that day and in South Africa and Australia international cricket matches are played.

Boxing Day is also big for the sport of ice hockey. By tradition, in Davos, Switzerland, the Spengler Cup commences and the IIHF World U20 Championship begin on Dec. 26, while the British National Hockey League usually has a full set of games.

One strange British tradition is, no matter what the weather, some people dress in fancy dress and then plunge into the freezing ocean, especially in northeast England. Personally, I have rarely found the ocean round Britain’s coasts warm enough to entice me to get in it even in high summer and there is nothing that would make me want to do it on a cold December morning, but I admire the brave, or perhaps crazy, souls who do it.

Fox hunters in their traditional red coats mounted on large horses and surrounded by packs of fox hounds have met on Boxing Day for many years and even though fox hunting for live animals was banned in Britain in 2004 the meets still go on so participants can chase around the countryside after dragged scent quarry instead.

I don’t suppose I will ever be in a position to persuade the American government to adopt Boxing Day as a holiday but that doesn’t matter; I try to take off work on that day anyway. It’s one of my favorite days of the year. All the rush and hassle of preparing for Christmas is over, the children have opened their gifts from Santa and are no longer too excited to sleep, the visitors have come and gone although more are always welcome, and there is leftover turkey to eat.

To my mind this is a family day, a day to relax and to enjoy life and the season. It’s also a day to reflect and to write to you, my friends so that is what I am doing right now. I hope you all had a merry Christmas and that as many as possible enjoyed a blissful and relaxing Boxing Day.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.

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