If you are a visitor from Great Britain, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, you are familiar with Boxing Day. I, on the other hand, had never heard of it until a few years ago, when a dear friend on a Yahoo group added it to the calendar to be posted on December 26. That's when I went looking for a good explanation of the day. Just to let everyone who doesn't live in one of these countries know, Boxing Day has been a national holiday in England, Wales, Ireland, and Canada since 1871.
So what is Boxing Day? First, it does NOT mean the day to get rid of your leftover Christmas boxes, nor does it mean it's the day to duke it out with family who refuse to leave, nor does it mean it's a day to return boxes of unwanted gifts to the store for a refund or something you truly desire. Instead, in the US (and even Canada), it is a day of deep discounts, usually up to 50% - 75% off most items. Highly sought out Christmas ornaments, cards, and wrappings are what many female shoppers are looking for. After that (and for most men), the most sought items include electronics and high end toys.
England and Canada's Boxing Day evolved into a major shopping event in the 1980s. Think of it as the equivalent of Black Friday. But this year, many of the sales started earlier in an effort to boost the economy where the warm weather we in the U.S. have experienced created an inverse effect on sluggish sales.
But that doesn't really explain Boxing Day, or its origins.
Boxing Day roots can be traced to Britain, where it's also known as St. Stephen's Day. Think of the song "Good King Wenceslas" where he saw a poor man in the snow, on the "Feast of Stephen."
Just as we Americans watch football on Thanksgiving, my British friends have Boxing Day rugby or soccer matches (what many British refer to as football) and horse races.
The Irish still refer to the holiday as St. Stephen's Day, and they have their own tradition called hunting the wren, in which boys fasten a fake wren to a pole and parade it through town. Also known as Wren Day, the tradition supposedly dates to 1601, to the Battle of Kinsale.
In Holland, some collection boxes were made out of earthenware pottery and were shaped like pigs. This may be where the term "Piggy Bank" originated.
An old tradition in Germany suggests that horses were ridden inside the church during the St. Stephen's Day service.
The Bahamas celebrate Boxing Day with a street parade and festival called Junkanoo, in which traditional dancers fill the streets with their elaborate costumes and headdresses.
Let's return to the Christmas carol, where Wenceslas, I learned, was the Duke of Bohemia who reigned in the early 10th century. He was apparently wandering around on his land on St. Stephen's Day when he saw a poor man gathering wood in the middle of a snowstorm. Moved, the King gathered surplus food and wine and carried them through the blizzard to the peasant's door. The tradition has always been closely associated with the Christmas season, hence the canned-food drives and Salvation Army Santas that pepper our U.S. neighborhoods during the winter. However, King Wenceslas' good deed came the day after Christmas, when the English poor received (and apparently still receive) most of their charity.
As an aside, I learned there were actually two St. Stephens. The first Stephen lived in Rome and was the first man to be killed for believing in the teachings of Jesus. His story is told in Acts of the Apostles 6: 1 to 8: 2. There is also evidence that he shares this day with another St Stephen, who came from Sweden. St Stephen of Sweden is the patron saint of horses. It stands to reason because Boxing Day has long been associated with outdoor sports, especially horse racing and hunting.
I can't find anywhere that King Wenceslas started Boxing Day, but the Church of England might have. During Advent, Anglican parishes used a locked box which churchgoers put their monetary donations in. On the day after Christmas, the boxes were opened and their contents distributed among the poor, thus possibly giving rise to this scenario.
Similar to that is the "Alms" box which was placed in every church on Christmas Day, into which worshipers placed a gift for the poor who lived in the parish. The box was opened the day after Christmas and distributed to the needy.
Centuries ago, during feudal times, landowners (or manor lords) often brought everyone together for Christmas. Since all the people who lived on the manor, mostly serfs, were in one place, it was easy to pass out the yearly necessities. Each family got a box, depending on their status, and handing out supplies to the serfs was made easy for the manor lord. In this scenario, the annual restocking became known as Boxing Day and was an obligation of the lord of the manor.
Since we're talking ancient times, another theory involves the merchant class, who often gave gifts to tradespeople or servants the day after Christmas, much like we in the U.S. give pre-Christmas gifts or tips to our paper or mail carrier, or person who tends our lawns or swimming pools. Those gifts from days gone by were packed in boxes, so the day came to be known as Boxing Day. In this scenario, the gift was strictly voluntary, and didn't involve an obligation.
In the 1400s, during the Age of Exploration, when sailing ships were setting off to discover new lands, a Christmas Box was used as a good luck device. It was a small container placed on each ship while it was still in port. It was put there by a priest, and those crewmen who wanted to ensure a safe return would drop money into the box. It was then sealed up and kept on board for the entire voyage. In this scenario, if the ship came home safely, the box was handed over to the priest in the exchange for a mass of thanks for a successful voyage. The priest would keep the box sealed until the day after Christmas when he would open it to share the contents with the poor.
Another version of Boxing Day is that servants brought their own boxes to the master the day after Christmas. Each master put small amounts of coins in the boxes. This scenario is similar to the second theory above, in that the master was not obligated to give gifts or coins, and the servants did not depend on the master for their yearly food, clothing, and other necessities.Yet another scenario is that the day after Christmas was the traditional day on which the aristocracy distributed presents (boxes) to servants and employees, much like our modern day Christmas bonus or company sponsored Christmas party. The servants returned home, opened their boxes and had a second Christmas on what became known as Boxing Day.
This scenario involves an old English tradition. Since servants had to wait on their masters on Christmas Day, the servants of the wealthy were given the next day off to visit their families. Each servant was given a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses, and often leftover food.
Similar to the scenario above, during the late 18th century, Lords and Ladies of the manor would "box up" their leftover food and distribute them the day after Christmas to tenants who lived and worked on their lands. The delivery was made by the aristocracy instead of the servants taking them with them at the end of Christmas day.
One final thought hits close to home. Being of British ancestry, and growing up in a VERY traditional British household, I remember my grandmother (my grandparents raised me from birth) telling me that when my blood grandfather died when my mother was three, she didn't remarry until my mother was 14. When she did, her parents disavowed her, saying she had married BELOW HER STATION. To think that attitude was still considered appropriate in the early 1950s in America is beyond my comprehension. But they (my grandmother's parents) apparently ran a very upstairs/downstairs home, one of which I am glad I was never exposed to.
However, that very thread is common in all the above scenarios, in that they all divide individuals by class, where the less fortunate, or "lower classes" are given gifts the day after Christmas, not before. And observing the true meaning (or any of the above scenarios) of Boxing Day helps promote those class distinctions.
So which scenario is correct? And which Boxing Day scenario do you prefer? Even the British can't seem to agree when, where, how, or why Boxing Day came about. They just know it's a bank holiday where presents have already been opened and a lavish meal has already been eaten. And I doubt they are thinking about class distinction either. After all, this IS the 21st century, not the middle ages, or the 20th century for that matter.
Since this is a mixed media collage, I'm sharing it with Art Journal Journey where Valerie is the host this month.
Each box is a bit different. For the top left box, I used pigment ink and a stencil over which I tried to stencil diamonds using NuPastels. The box assembly below it had a recycled book page left over from my Christmas cards and a piece of red paper I drew a ribbon on. Below that was a sticker.
For the right side, on the far right top, I glued two pieces of red paper together with a piece of spritzed book page. To the left of that was a sticker, to which I attached two pieces of corrugated cardboard I colored using the NuPastel that came off the page background. I added a bit of leftover spritzed book page to the bottom box. Working our way right, you see three red pieces of colored copier/printer paper I added pigment ink to. I further colored them using three different ink pens denoting ribbon. The final box was another leftover spritzed book page over which I added part of a napkin.
Enjoy Boxing Day whether your country celebrates it or not. After all, we artists don't really need an excuse to celebrate, do we? Thanks, too, for visiting and joining me at Art Journal Journey, also. I enjoyed learning about boxing day several years ago, and I hope you learned something too. I know I learned I may never learn the true origin of Boxing Day!