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OPINION: Boxing Day, named for shopping, gifting or fisticuffs?

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Phil Egan

My brother, Larry, who worked on a Canadian project in Kansas City for several years, didn’t initially understand why he had to work on Boxing Day.

He soon realized that a Dec. 26 holiday, the day after Christmas, is a distinctly British tradition.

Today, Boxing Day in Canada is known as a day for bargain shopping, but that’s a modern phenomenon. Boxing Day is at least 400 years old.

Samuel Pepys, Chief Secretary to the British Admiralty and who lived between 1633 and 1703, mentions Boxing Day in his famous diaries.

As a navy man, Pepys was familiar with the practice of ships carrying a box of money stored in the captain’s quarters. When a voyage was successful, the box was given to a priest or minister, a contribution to the alms distributed by churches to the poor on the day after Christmas.

The Royal Navy is one source for the holiday’s name, but not the only one.

The grand, palatial homes of the British aristocracy provided board and lodging for live-in servants. Christmas Day was one of their busiest, preparing the great house to receive company and entertain with lavish presentations of food and drink. There was no time for servants to relax and celebrate their own Christmas.

Traditionally, it was the day after Christmas when domestic servants were given the day off to travel to their family homes and enjoy the holiday with friends and loved ones.

As a display of gratitude for the year’s labours, the lord of the manor would bestow gift boxes on departing servants. They might include money, leftover food, or other gifts, and a “boxing day” tradition was born.

In the early days of the 19th century, English businesses and industries picked up the custom and doled out gifts or bonuses on Boxing Day.

The practice is noted in the book and movie, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, when Scrooge invites Bob Cratchit to join him after work for “a bowl of hot punch.”

In some old British Empire nations in Africa and the Caribbean, the name of Boxing Day is taken literally, with prizefights offered as a form of post-Christmas entertainment.

In this writer’s ancestral homeland of Ireland, Dec. 26, St. Stephen’s Day, is celebrated as Wren Day. “Wren boys” hoist a fake wren onto a decorated pole and parade through the streets in colourful costumes.

In Canada, the Wren Day festivities survive as Newfoundland’s Mummers’ Parade.

Phil Egan is editor-in-chief of the Sarnia Historical Society. Got an interesting tale? Contact him at [email protected]


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