By JUDITH FLANDERS
Published: December 25, 2008 New York Times
ASK most British people what Boxing Day is for, and they will answer, “It’s the day the sales start.” Or, possibly, the day for “visiting the rellies” — Brit-speak for relatives. Ask an Irish person and you will get a history lesson on Christian saints and martyrs, reminding you that it is St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland. Ask an American, of course, and the answer is: “Boxing what?”
Boxing Day, usually thought of as Dec. 26, but technically the first weekday after Christmas, has a distinguished pedigree in Britain, and during this time of economic crisis, it is good to be reminded of it. It is on Boxing Day, after all, on the “feast of Stephen,” that “Good King Wenceslas” looked out and saw the snow, “deep and crisp and even.” The cold was notable not for its beauty, but for the hunger that it brought with it. The king calls for food, wine and “pine logs” not for his own feast, but that he and his page may “bear them thither” to give to the poor.
In Britain, post-Reformation amnesia over saints’ days saw St. Stephen’s Day renamed, but even “Boxing Day” is a reminder that the day is one for charitable giving. Maundy Thursday, at Easter, is for charity from the great (the queen still hands out what are today Maundy coins of a small but symbolic value, but were once very real money — alms for the poor people); Boxing Day, in contrast, is for giving from everyone.
In the 19th century, the “boxes” of Boxing Day were either literally boxes of gifts or money, given by employers to staff and servants. On Boxing Day 1872, Hannah Cullwick, a maid-of-all-work, the lowest kind of household drudge, wrote in her diary, “I go round every year to the master’s or missis’ tradesmen and ask for Christmas boxes, and they mostly give me a shilling or half a crown.” (Half a crown was two shillings and sixpence, or perhaps two days’ pay for a lowly live-in servant.) She and her fellow servants were given this money by the shopkeepers as a thank-you for bringing the household’s business — and as an inducement to keep shopping there in the new year.
Servants also expected a tip from the guests who visited their employers at Christmas — and from today’s perspective no tip could be too much for the drudgery involved. Cullwick recorded working from 6 a.m. to 4 a.m. to create the “family” Christmas her employers expected: she cooked for nearly 50 people on Christmas Eve and 20 the following day — with one person part-time to help her. As a treat, she was allowed to “run up” from the basement to stand in the hallway and watch some of the amateur play that the guests put on. She added wistfully, “I often think what a most delightful pleasure that must be, going home for Christmas, but I’ve never once had it.”
By definition, before the last third of the 19th century, seasonal presents were Boxing Day gifts, and a “box” was a present from a superior to an inferior, whether in social status (employer to servant) or age (parent to child). Presents were a favor conferred, an act of benevolence — even to a child; they were not something exchanged between equals. When in 1841 it was noted that Queen Victoria’s new husband liked “the agreeable accompaniment of Christmas presents,” his childlike (servant-like?) taste was odd enough to comment on. At mid-century, the great Lewis’s of Liverpool department store sold ready-made Boxing Day parcels for employers to give to servants like Hannah Cullwick: “Seven yards of double-width black merino, two yards of lining, one striped skirt and half a dozen linen handkerchiefs” — in other words, the materials for the servants to sew their own uniforms.
Presents were equated with charity. New Year’s treats had long been organized for the poor; in the 19th century many workhouse or laborers’ New Year’s dinners were held on Boxing Day, after the family had had its own celebrations. The main thrust of these events was that the day was not one to satisfy your own needs, but those of others.
For most of the population, through most of the century, of course, while Boxing Day was a day for boxes, it was otherwise just another working day. It wasn’t until 1871 that it became an official bank holiday (the British term for a “legal” holiday — you’d never know we spoke the same language, would you?). Charity was not the same as cessation from labor. “What have you done for the happiness of those below you?” asked Punch, nominally a satirical magazine, in 1843. “Nothing? Do you dare, with those sirloin cheeks and that port-wine nose, to answer — Nothing?”
Today most householders in Britain continue to give Boxing Day gifts, even if they are end-of-year bonuses handed over before the holiday, and we have forgotten that they were once called boxes. They still go to our “servants,” although in the 21st century these servants have been outsourced: now they are the cleaners, dry cleaners, recycling collectors, delivery people and dustmen (sanitation workers — our word is a survival from the days when they removed coal dust). Unless there is a ghastly event like the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, unless something literally earthshaking happens, we have stopped seeing Boxing Day as a day for charitable giving. Instead we have a grinding 10-day holiday shutdown, filled with grotesque overeating and drinking, and then a return to the consumerist fray in the Boxing Day sales. This is the modern British Christmas.
In Britain, because there is no Thanksgiving holiday on which to spread some of the family-centered traveling, Boxing Day is most often used as a day for duty visits, for taking children to see their grandparents. It would be good if Boxing Day were added to America’s list of legal holidays. (From over here, you look awfully light on time off anyway.) But not if it just became another day in the round of shop-eat-family-family-family.
Instead Boxing Day could return as a day of giving. Not necessarily cash — and not material to make uniforms — but rather one day a year to donate skills or effort, a day for sharing something of value in the larger community. Help someone whose first language isn’t English fill out driver’s license forms. Load an old lady’s iPod with Rogers and Hammerstein. Teach the boy next door to throw overhand, so the other kids stop teasing him.
What we really need to do is put down the punch bowl and pick up on what Punch magazine wrote more than 150 years ago: Don’t just keep “the Christmas of the belly: keep you the Christmas of the heart. Give — give.”
Judith Flanders is the author of “Inside the Victorian Home” and “A Circle of Sisters.”