It’s Boxing Day (at time of writing), which means… the last blog for a bit. Alright we might pop back for Twelfth Night. But in terms of blogging the history of Christmas (all based on my new book Hark! The Biography of Christmas – eBook on the link, if you fancy), I think we’re about done for now. Yes, the Christmas season technically continues (for the Orthodox church, till as far as February 2nd), but Western Christmas culture, secularly at least, likes it all wrapped up by Boxing Day.
So before we close the season, here are some bits and pieces of December 26ths in Christmas past.
Boxing Day is NOT the day after Christmas, but the next working day after Christmas. So if December 26th is a Saturday, that year’s Boxing Day is December 28th. One thing December 26th IS each year, is St Stephen’s Day.
St Stephen was the first Christian martyr, with his stoning recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Given that Boxing Day was a Victorian invention, the far history of Christmas Day+1 is more to do with St Stephen’s Day.
So, the most famous St Steve’s Day carol? ‘Good King Wenceslas’. It’s not technically a Christmas Carol, but since St Stevie’s Day is just one day later, it’s been lumped in. The song is based on a real person – Václav the Good, aka Duke Wenceslaus I of Bohemia. Though only a duke, he was posthumously declared a king after his martyrdom in 935. In life he was a generous ruler who saw the Christmas season as an opportunity to bless widows and orphans with alms. He was a very deep man, and crisp, and even.
Over in Finland, St Stephen’s Day was a popular day for sleigh rides with horses, contrasting with the rather sombre Christmas Day rituals. Across the Western world, it’s been a day for big sporting events – and even on a domestic level, for centuries it’s been a day for getting outside. On December 25th you stay in and eat; on the 26th you go out and walk, ride or just generally work off that turkey.
Ireland especially had this day marked for a traditional hunt, until this died out in the nineteenth century. More recently on the wane has been the Irish custom of mumming and parading with old clothes, where it’s called Wren Day. It’s still a popular day for taking the family to see a local panto at the theatre.
While there had essentially been a Boxing Day for years, it rose in significance in Victorian days when Twelfth Night stopped being celebrated so much, and commercialism say the Christmas season end, culturally at least, a little earlier. We only all gained an official day off in the twentieth century.
The tradition it was named after was just dying out – the giving of a Christmas box, from bosses to certain staff members. The Romans had given boxes from master to slave; through the centuries, boxes were contributed to year-round, to make a tidy sum come Christmas.
By Victoria’s day, the English custom was particularly that visiting workers might get such a box – not permanent staff so much as postmen or other regular visiting tradesfolk. Boxing Day kept the name, just as the rise of the middle classes saw off this hierarchical custom, plus the new ways we were giving to charity at Christmas, rather than just to delivery personnel. But if you tip your regular Deliveroo biker with a box of coins this Boxing Day, you’re continuing this custom – and getting some odd looks.
The Boxing Day sales don’t mean as much as they did through the 20th century thanks to internet sales, Black Friday and the rise of the ‘Boxing Week’ sales (just a pre-cursor to the January sales, and just after Black Friday week sales… man, shops are desperate). More on how the shops have shifted the Christmas season here.
Which leads me to note that this is probably a cheaper time than usual to nab my book, on which all these posts are based. After all, if it’s not Christmas, it’s no longer topical.
Which probably means I should stop talking about it.