Boxing Day: The play time holiday (that comes with a touch of giving)

by Stephen Cobb on December 26, 2012

Despite the fact that I am now an agnostic citizen of the United States of America, my upbringing in a church-going protestant family in England means that for me, the day after Christmas Day will always be Boxing Day. And Boxing Day is my favorite day of the year.

Many people in America are unfamiliar with Boxing Day, just as a lot of people in England, land of my birth, are unfamiliar with Thanksgiving Day. Sure, there is some knowledge of the basic facts enumerated in Wikipedia (see Boxing Day and Thanksgiving Day), but there is not the familiarity which comes from living those days, year after year.

Good King Wencelas stamps from UK, 1973Over the years, when Americans asked me about Boxing Day, they got my version, which I tended to universalize as “this is how Boxing Day is in England.” I now realize I was giving them “what I liked about the Boxing Days that I enjoyed in England in the 1950s through the early 1970s.”

So, this Boxing Day, I wanted to give a sense of how it was for me as a kid, without pretending to know if this is what it was like for other kids, or what it is like in England today. I will start with the meaning of the term, as I understood it: Boxing Day comes from the tradition of rich people boxing up the Christmas leftovers and taking them to the poor people on the day after Christmas.

That’s not exactly what is represented in the series of British stamps you see here, but the story they illustrate, that of “Good King Wenceslas,” does relate to Boxing Day, which is also the feast day of Saint Stephen. That is the day on which the Saint Wenceslas miracle occurred (involving the high born Wenceslas and his page taking alms to the poor in the snow, a story to which I relate for the strange reason noted here).

To understand my love of Boxing Bay you need to know what my Christmas Day was like. It began with going downstairs on Christmas morning to find gifts under the Christmas tree (after the age of eight it began with me trying to stop my younger brother getting up before dawn to go downstairs). After unwrapping our gifts and waking our parents–not always in that order–there would be an abbreviated period of playing with new toys, cut short by the need to tidy up the house for Christmas dinner and get ourselves ready for church.

After the Christmas morning service, at which we saw an assortment of friends and family and exchanged news of our gifts, we would embark on a series of house visits to relatives. This always included at least one great aunt and my dad’s parents. (My mum’s mum lived with us and usually stayed at home on Christmas morning to ease the Christmas dinner through the final stages of preparation.) After these visits, which involved a lot of good manners and sitting properly, we eventually got home to the Christmas dinner. After that, it was time to watch the Christmas programming on television. (These were often shows created for that particular Christmas, going out live, in other words, watch it now or never see it, ever, no repeats.) And that’s about where Christmas Day ended (in our house kids went to bed many hours before grownups). You had been blessed with new toys. You had done your duty to family. You had been entertained. But there hadn’t been a whole lot of time to play.

Then came Boxing Day! A holiday for everyone, no shops open, no need for dad to go to work. Just time to play, inside with our toys, but also outside. If there was no snow, this might be a friendly rugby game or football game. If there was snow then it was time for tobogganing. There were Christmas leftovers to eat and, for most families, an opportunity to relax and enjoy the spirit of the season. At least, that’s how I remember it. And that’s how I have tried to keep Boxing Day, despite the fact that it is not a ‘standard’ holiday for many Americans.

I don’t go to the stores on Boxing Day. I don’t work, if I can avoid it. I just spend it relaxing, maybe communicating with friends. There is no set agenda for Boxing day. You make it up as you go along, it’s a Do-It-Yourself holiday (and not a bad day to try one of the DIY projects you’ve been looking forward to). This year I had a lingering cold and sore throat on Boxing Day and so I spent most of the day reading fiction and writing non-fiction, including this blog post. I didn’t take any alms to the poor but I did re-invest some of my micro-loan funds at Kiva. I’m not looking to start a Boxing Day movement or fight the rampant commercialism of Boxing Day. I’m just saying Boxing Day is my favorite day of the year, and now you have some idea why.

[Postscript: The sled pictured at the top of the post is a “Flexible Flyer” like the one my family had in the big snows of 1962-63 in England (image courtesy of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis). To the best of my knowledge, these were not sold in England at that time. We got ours from an elderly lady that we sometimes visited on Christmas Day. She and her husband had lived in Canada and brought one of these back with them. Although it was well used when she gave it to us, my dad lavished some TLC on it in his garage and it proved to be a great ride for many years.]

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Diana O. Gaines April 26, 2013 at 5:21 pm

In some commonwealth countries, Boxing Day is widely known as a holiday given for one or two days after Christmas. A few countries named the Boxing Day differently, for example, Ireland call it as St. Stephen’s Day while South Africa once called it as Day of the Goodwill before called it back as the Boxing Day in 1994. Nobody really knows why the holiday after Christmas Day was called as the Boxing Day, though some guessed that the names was derived from the folk etymology that ‘boxing’ has something to do with the sport. That’s why, some people celebrate Boxing Day by holding some kind of sports events.

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