Boxing Day: a brief history

the history of boxing day

Last December, as I was planning where to eat lunch, an old acquaintance came to me with a puzzled look on her face. She showed me a flyer from a local English-themed pub advertising their celebrations for Boxing Day.

There’s a community of English and Canadians in Oklahoma City, but it seemed December 26, Boxing Day, was practically a secret club. My friend mused over patrons to the pub donning boxing gloves and ‘duking’ it out for prizes and she was quite prepared to take part, safe in the knowledge she was getting Tae-Bo videos for Christmas.

After I stopped laughing and wrestled with letting her go to the pub with a pair of gloves and a mouth-guard, I attempted to explain the ‘mysteries’ surrounding this day — of which none center around boxing.

Medieval ‘Box-Up’

Circa. 400-1500 AD – the Middle Ages – Though that span of time is too great to really delve into with any detail, that is okay because the record of this event is kind of murky. So somewhere in that time frame, this Boxing Day began to form and crystalize.  Starting somewhere toward the end of the Roman era in Briton, and with the advent of Christianity in the region, it became customary for the aristocracy of England to ‘box-up’ their leftovers, and ‘tattered riches’ for the poor and present gifts to their servants and those that performed services for them during the year, ie: the gardener, butcher, and lamplighter. It’s also considered that this was the day the churches would open the alms boxes and distribute their contents to the poor and needy. The tradition followed into the English colonies and is marked on calendars in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

St. Stephen’s Day 

December 26, is also St. Stephen’s day, also known as the Feast of Stephen. Stephen was the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death after the Crucifixion, and though the day is widely celebrated in Ireland, the festivities have little to do with the Saint.

Referred to as the day for Hunting the Wren, on this day, groups of young boys would hunt a wren. The dead bird was then tied to the top of a pole, decorated with holly sprigs and ribbons. With smudged faces, the group would then sing at local village houses in the hope of receiving coins, food, or gifts. For the folks that generously donated money to the kids, would in return receive a freshly plucked feather from the wren as thanks. The collected monies would then be used to host a big shindig/dance for the whole village to enjoy.

The origin of this tradition isn’t positively known, though one legend tells of a wren alerting enemies on the whereabouts of St. Stephen. Another stemming from the Viking raids of the 700’s, tells of a wren eating breadcrumbs one night on a drum in the Viking’s camp. This awoke the drummer who, in turn, sounded the alarm. The Vikings went to battle and thwarted a surprise attack by Irish soldiers.

Modern Tradition of Boxing Day 

Nowadays, Boxing Day is another excuse to be with friends and family. In England, it is a public holiday marked with soccer games and a traditional meal of roast lamb or beef. Around the world, it is another ‘day off’, and a good time to start planning New Year’s resolutions. Maybe your family can start up your own Boxing Day tradition by donating food to one of the many homeless shelters in your town. If you are in my beloved Oklahoma City, I recommend connecting with Joe’s addiction, a day shelter, and emergency shelter, serving the homeless in their area. Joe’s Addiction is led by Jamie Zumwalt, who is always on my nice list.

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