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Origins and Development
Some writers believe that boxing can be traced back to the Middle Ages. They note that parish priests of that era customarily opened up the church alms-box on December 26, St. Stephen's Day. Then the priests distributed the coins it contained to the needy. Perhaps this custom attached itself to St. Stephen's Day because the saint's role in the Christian community of which he was a member was to ensure the fair distribution of goods. In any case, this practice gave rise to the use of the term "box" to denote a small gift of money or a gratuity. In Scotland these tips were called "handsels" and were given on Handsel Monday, that is, the first Monday of the new year.
By the early seventeenth century, the Church's St. Stephen's Day tradition had inspired working people to adopt the custom of saving whatever tips they had been given throughout the year in clay boxes which they broke open on December 26. By the late seventeenth century they began to solicit tips from all those who had enjoyed their services during the year. They collected the last of these "boxes" on December 26, after which they broke open these containers and used the money to buy Christmas treats. In the nineteenth century many bought tickets to pantomime shows, which in those days usually opened on December 26. By the nineteenth century the custom of boxing had so colored the character of the day that many people began refer to December 26 as Boxing Day rather than St. Stephen's Day. Parliament declared Boxing Day a public holiday in 1871.
By the eighteenth century middle- and upper-middle-class people were complaining about the increasing numbers of tradesmen who petitioned them for Christmas boxes. By mid-century some families were paying up to thirty pounds in these annual tips. Naturally, one's employees and domestic servants received some extra financial consideration at Christmas time. In addition to one's own workers, however, a small horde of neighborhood service providers might turn up at one's door on the twenty-sixth of December asking for a Christmas box. These included dustmen, lamplighters, postmen, errand-runners, watchmen, bell ringers, chimneysweeps, sextons (church custodians), turncocks (men who maintained the water pipes), and others. What's more, shop assistants, tradesmen, and their apprentices often expected a Christmas box from their customers. In 1710, English author Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote, "By the Lord Harry, I shall be undone here with Christmas boxes. The rogues of the coffee-house have raised their tax, every one giving a crown, and I gave mine for shame, besides a great many halfcrowns to great men's porters" (Hutton, 1996, 23).
At one point, the citizens of Buckinghamshire, England, raised the practice of boxing to new heights. Residents of some villages in the region claimed the right to a free meal at the local rectory on St. Stephen's Day. Since the rectors had to pay for the meal out of their own pockets, they naturally began to resist this custom, know as "Stephening." It is told that one year a rector from the village of Drayton Beauchamp locked himself in the rectory on December 26 and refused to let the housekeeper answer the many knocks at the door. In this manner he thought to escape doling out the free meal of bread, cheese, and ale demanded by the town's residents. When the townspeople realized what was going on, however, they broke into the building and helped themselves to a meal that completely emptied his larders. In 1834 the Charity Commission, finding no legal or traditional entitlement to this yearly looting, put an end to the custom.
By the late nineteenth century Christmas boxing began to diminish. This decline continued into the twentieth century, and, slowly, the Christmas box disappeared from the ranks of English seasonal customs. The English still give a few tips at Christmas time, but they are no longer specifically associated with Boxing Day. In fact, some people now think of Boxing Day as the day to throw out the boxes their Christmas gifts came in.
Chambers, Robert. "December 26 - Christmas-Boxes." In his The Book ofDays. Volume 2. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Hadfield, Miles, and John Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1961. Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976. Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.
St. Stephen's Day (Boxing Day)
Date of Observation: December 26
Where Celebrated: Australia, Austria, Canada, England, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Sweden, and other Christian nations
Symbols and Customs: Christmas Box, Horse, Wren
Related Holidays: Christmas
St. Stephen became the first Christian martyr on this day, December 26, somewhere between 31 and 35 C . E . According to the New Testament book of Acts, Stephen was chosen by the Apostles as one of the first seven deacons of the church in Jerusalem. He was later denounced as a blasphemer by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council in ancient Palestine, and stoned to death outside the gate of Jerusalem that now bears his name. Stephen's death is considered an example of the highest class of martyrdom, because he intentionally gave his life for Christ.
The basis of saint day remembrances-for St. Stepehen as well as other saints-is found in ancient Roman tradition. On the anniversary of a death, families would share a ritual meal at the grave site of an ancestor. This practice was adopted by Christians who began observing a ritual meal on the death anniversary of ancestors in the faith, especially martyrs. As a result, most Christian saint days are associated with the death of the saint. There are three important exceptions. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus are honored on their nativities (birthdays). Many who suffered martyrdom are remembered on saint days in the calendars of several Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects.
In England, Australia, Canada, and many other countries, the day after CHRISTMAS is Boxing Day. There are a number of theories about where this holiday got its name. Some point to the church alms-box, the contents of which were not dispensed until the day after Christmas. The most popular explanation is that it was named after the earthenware CHRISTMAS BOXES that servants and tradespeople used to carry around to collect tips and end-of-the-year bonuses. Some people believe that it comes from the Arabic backsheesh, meaning "gratuity." Crusaders brought this word back with them, and it became common for anyone who had rendered service to another person during the year to expect backsheesh at Christmas.
SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS
At one time, every ship that went off on a long voyage kept a box on board for donations to the priest who, in return, was expected to offer masses for the safety of the ship and its sailors. The box was not to be opened until the vessel returned. If the voyage had been rough, it was usually quite full. Because mass at that time was called Christ-mass, the boxes kept to pay for it were called "Christmass Boxes."
A relic of these ancient boxes can be seen in the earthenware or wooden boxes with slits in the top used by servants and children in nineteenth-century England to gather money during the Christmas season, giving rise to the name Boxing Day. Servants, apprentices, and tradespeople, especially in London, broke their boxes open as soon as Christmas was over. Christmas boxes were also associated with the custom of "doling," in which bands of young, poor, and often rowdy people went around demanding gifts of money and food from the wealthy and privileged. In the 1820s and 1830s, the English custom of Christmas boxes was transformed into the Victorian custom of exchanging Christmas gifts.
The earthen savings box can still be found in the Netherlands, where it is commonly made in the shape of a pig, much like the American piggy bank. It is considered bad luck to break open this box, known as "The Feast Pig," before Christmas.
St. Stephen is the patron saint of horses. According to a Swedish legend, he had five of them. As he made his rounds preaching the word of God and one of his horses got tired, he simply mounted the next. After his death, his body was tied to St. Stephen's Day
the back of an unbroken colt, which brought him back to his hometown, Norrala, to be buried. The church that was later built on the site of his grave became a place of pilgrimage to which owners brought their sick animals, particularly horses, for healing. Some scholars think that this legendary Swedish St. Stephen is a mythical figure rather than the New Testament martyr, and that the legend surrounding him and his horses was an attempt to account for the folk customs that were already well established on this day.
In England, at one time horses were bled on St. Stephen's Day in the belief that it would benefit them-a custom that is still carried out in some parts of Austria. During St. Stephen's Day services in Munich, Germany, it was customary for more than 200 men on horseback to ride three times around the interior of a church, a practice that wasn't abolished until 1876. Horse races are common on this day, and horses are often fed consecrated salt or bread as a good-luck charm.
The customs associated with horses on this day appear to be non-Christian in origin. It is possible that horses were sacrificed or slaughtered on this day in pagan times, and that the horse races that often took place were a prelude to some kind of purification ceremony for houses and fields. (See also ST. GEORGE'S DAY.)
In England and Ireland it was the custom on the day after Christmas to "hunt the wren." Young men and boys would dress up in leaves and branches to go out hunting, and after they had killed a bird, they fastened it to the top of a long pole and went from house to house collecting money. In some areas, a feather from the wren was exchanged for a small donation and then kept as protection against shipwreck during the coming year. After all the houses in the village had been visited, the wren was laid out on a funeral bier and carried to the churchyard, where it was buried with great solemnity. Sometimes the bird was boiled and eaten.
Known as "the king of birds," the wren was probably once regarded as sacred. Hunting it at Christmastime may have been all that remained of the primitive custom of slaying the divine animal. Carrying its body from door to door was apparently intended to convey to each house a portion of the bird's virtues. Eating the bird may have originally been some sort of communion feast.
Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Crippen, T.G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Hervey, Thomas K. The Book of Christmas. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1888. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. 1912. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992.
Australian Media www.irishfestivals.net/saintstephensday.htm
New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia www.newadvent.org/cathen/14286b.htm
BkDays-1864, vol. II, p. 764
BkHolWrld-1986, Dec 26
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 322
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 79
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 765
NatlHolWrld-1968, p. 79
OxYear-1999, p. 534
Celebrated in: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Botswana, Canada, Cyprus, Dominica, England and Wales, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, Ghana, Gibraltar, Grenada, Guyana, Iceland, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Malawi, Nauru, New Zealand, Nigeria, Niue, Northern Ireland, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Scotland, Sierra Leone, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, Zimbabwe