Sometimes, when the planets and our friends align, we hold a winter lunch patterned on one described in Echoes of War by William Rivière, a flawed historical novel and guilty pleasure. The lunch conjured by Rivière takes place in Norfolk after a hunt on Boxing Day. Its host is not so much liked as tolerated by his guests, who regard him with neither ill will nor particular affection. Some of the guests are neighboring gentry, but less wealthy and more interesting, artistic more than mercantile. Everyone shows up each year anyway, to uphold tradition by shooting the host’s carefully cultivated birds and to find, against expectation, that the ritual provides comfort and, against odds, pleasure. In annual retrospect no one should have been surprised, and in fact one prescient character was not:
“Lunch! That would cheer him up. Hot gammon, a glass of beer, Stilton and biscuits and apples. He trusted the traditional Boxing Day lunch would not be varied.
Julian Hedleigh bustled about at his sideboard, his face ruddy from exposure to wind and snow, his eyes shining with good cheer. Like a lot of ambitious, devious men, he delighted in playing the affectionate father, husband and neighbor who was allowed for a brief hiatus to forget the big world. Like a lot of men of wealth, he sometimes delighted in the apparent simplicity of his domestic arrangements. The informality of his shooting lunches was just as invariable a convention as was the elegance of his wife’s dinner parties. So now the fact that Bure Hall was well-staffed was practically concealed. Hedleigh urged his guests to choose between the case of India ale and the case of stout, he opened their bottles for them. At the hearth he fussed about the logs, dusted lichen off his hands with a business-like air.”
When newcomers appeared,
“He hurried back to the sideboard to carve more gammon. ‘Another slice: Excellent! Potatoes are in that dish, help yourselves... ’ Then he was off again, his attention on the table, muttering, ‘Stilton, biscuits. Right. Christmas cake. Now, what was it I…? He clapped his hands together. ‘Apples! Knew I’d forgotten something. Where’s that bag of Coxes gone?’” (Rivière 103-04)
The scene occurs during 1934; the Depression requires emphatic austerity and Britain fears for decline. The Nazis have purged their Brownshirts in a night of mass killing and murdered the leader of Austria in his own Chancellery. The comforting lunch is a break in the sadness of remembered war and the specter of one on the way. We are luckier than them, if only just, for we also live in a shadow of winter nights and anxious times, with our own hard times and admittedly lesser wars and lunatic fringe. In our case, everyone troops up, down or east not to Norfolk but to coastal Rhode Island, where our sidewalks have been furled for the season and the colors are grey. Nobody else is around; this is a world of summer homes and winter exiles.
Our guests are unarmed and we have no beaters to flush game: It is not really Boxing Day, but we gather in January to scorn the crass weather and ratify our friendships. We get together at two PM, more or less, to eat rustic things, ham and boiled potatoes and cabbage, with ale and stout and Riesling. There will be Cumberland sauce for comfort, mustards and piccalilli to add some punch. Unlike Mr. Hedleigh we have no servants to hide, so that what is apparent is real and we cook for ourselves.
Our simple lunch also ends with cake and apples and crackers and pickle and Stilton and nobody feels shorted, just like in Echoes of War. Some people stay all night; sometimes we are treated to a blizzard and they have no choice. When we manage to pull this off in random years it is a delicious day, all slow reflection, calm cooking and catching up.
In the United States, the term ‘Boxing Day’ may conjure notions of Mike Tyson or Frazier and Ali, but that would be wrong unless, perhaps, you live in Guyana or Commonwealth Africa, where prize fights are indeed scheduled by tradition on the day (Millman). William Hazlitt, who counted the fights among his legion enthusiasms, would happily have dedicated a wintry day to the ring, but that is a spurious aside. By recently lapsed tradition it was the first weekday after, not Christmas, when English families exchanged presents: That is Boxing Day in Anglophone countries other than the United States.
The origin of the term itself, however, is obscure. It variously has been attributed to at least five sources.
A romantic origin myth ties the day to a Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas.” He was a tenth century Duke of Bohemia who, so it goes, witnessed a peasant foraging in desperation for firewood in a snowstorm on St. Stephen’s Day. The duke was moved, and responded by taking food and drink to his poor subject’s hut. (Suddath) Unfortunately for this explanation, Boxing Day never took hold as a holiday in the duke’s old stomping ground of central Europe.
Other undocumented assertions date the origins of the term and day even earlier, to the late Roman period, when churches collected offerings in connection with St. Stephen’s Day which, unlike the modern incarnation of Boxing Day, always did fall on 26 December. A variation on this theme dates the practice from substantially later, to the early Church of England. (Suddath) Parish churches would place metal donation boxes either outside their doors during Advent, or only on Christmas day (accounts differ) then distribute the money to the needy on St. Stephen’s Day, which therefore became known as Boxing Day. (compare Woodlands with Suddath)
Another theory dates the day to nineteenth century Britain, where domestic servants who were required to work on Christmas got the next day off for their own celebrations. Then servant families would exchange gifts--and open boxes of coins or goods given to them by their employers as yearend gratuities. (Times) A variation on this explanation maintains that servants got “to smash open small earthenware boxes left for them by their masters.” (Mikkelson) The Editor considers this last, strictly ceramic, theory implausible.
We know from a primary source that not only their employers, but also the shopkeepers from whom servants bought food and other items for the households where they worked, gave away coins during the holiday season. In 1872, Hannah Cullwick wrote that
“I go round every year to master’s or missis’ tradesmen and ask for Christmas boxes, and they mostly give me a shilling or half a crown.” (Times)
From this and other sources, Judith Flanders maintains that the term ‘box’ eventually acquired a secondary meaning; it referred to any gift from a superior to an inferior, either in social status or age: “[T]he ‘boxes’ of Boxing Day were either literally boxes of gifts or money, given by employers to staff or servants.” (Times)
According to Flanders, who has written a book on nineteenth century domestic arrangements in Britain, Cullwick was a maid-of-all-work, “the lowest kind of household drudge,” and the amount that she received from each benefactor represented two days’ wages. This was no incidental sum, and for good reason; the tradesmen that Cullwick patronized prudently sought to thank her for the business as an inducement to continue purchasing household requirements from them during the coming year. (Times)
Nor was the custom limited to employees or the stores where they shopped. In a passage attributed to Dickens, on Boxing Day “postmen, errand boys, and servants of various kinds received a Christmas box of contributions from those whom they serve.” (netglimse.com) Friends and colleagues did not exchange gifts; they were charitable favors bestowed on those less fortunate.
This was no casual whim; the custom became so deeply embedded that nineteenth century department stores prepared boxes of gifts that employers could purchase. One rather gruesome example sold by Lewis’s included all the fabrics required for a servant girl to sew her household uniform. (Times)
In any event, at some point in the mid-Victorian era, the conflation of the term ‘boxing’ with a charitable gesture also had led the gentry to designate a day for giving money to the poor and for allowing servants to visit home or otherwise neglect the business of the big house. By 1871, Boxing Day had become a legal holiday in Britain, a day of mandated rest for servants so overtaxed by their masters’ festive requirements during the Christmas season. The term by then had lost any strict relationship to its former usage and become synonymous more generally with charity and respite.
Flanders’ research is superior and she writes well, but she does overlook a competing maritime theory for the origin of Boxing Day. It also lacks any historically valid documentation, but the Editor considers it appealing just the same. At some unspecified time, sailing vessels with business in great waters began stowing a “Christmass box.” It contained money contributed by the ship’s complement and remained sealed for the duration of each voyage.
“The box was not to be opened until the return of the vessel; and we can conceive that, in cases where the mariners had had a perilous time of it, this casket would be found to enclose a tolerable offering. The mass was at that time called Christmass, and the boxes kept to pay for it were, of course, called Christmass-boxes.” (quoted in Mikkelson)
Once the ship made port, a priest would open its Christmass box and distribute the offerings that it contained to the poor on St. Stephen’s Day with other alms,
“and hence the title which has descended to our day, giving to the anniversary of St. Stephen’s martyrdom the title Christmas-boxing day and, by corruption, its present popular one of Boxing Day.” (quoted in Mikkelson)
We would like to believe in this explanation that is so fitting for a ritual kept by a maritime nation.
Whatever its origin, however, a consensus reigns that Boxing Day became a reasonably humane reflection of the horizontal class structure in Victorian Britain through its formal recognition of a time for giving gifts to those socially and economically inferior. By the midtwentieth century, however, ‘Boxing Day’ had in turn lost its association with class and charity to become the democratic holiday that it remains, even though families now exchange their gifts on Christmas day.
Once established, Boxing Day became the focus of other rituals in Britain. Rivière has done (at least some of) his research; hunting, although usually riding to hounds rather than for feathered game, was one of the earliest of these ancillary activities. Frenzied discount shopping, the kickoff to postseason sales, is another one. The soccer and rugby football schedules are full on the day, mostly local derbys between storied rivals, and the Kempton Park Racetrack runs the prestigious King George VI Chase.
And now, in North America, Boxing Day has a tenuous beachhead in New England. It is not quite consistently kept, it floats around and differs from its model. That in itself is appropriate, for in Britain and the Commonwealth the holiday has lost its original meaning and become something better as well.
Recipes for baked and boiled ham, a seventeenth century mustard sauce and a special Boxing Day sauce for leftover turkey appear in the practical. Recipes for cabbage and Brussels sprouts appear in the recipe archive.
An observation about lacuna: There ought not to have been any servants to conceal at Bure Hall during the particular shooting lunch described in Echoes of War, for this shooting lunch was unlike other shooting lunches. This day was Boxing Day, when the servants not only would not have been in evidence, but also would not have been onsite: A gap in Rivière’s research.
Anon.,“Happy Boxing Day December 26,” www.netglimse.com/holidays/boxing_day/index.shtml
Boxing Day table photo, Commons, Wikipedia
Boxing Day boxing photo, Hoboken411
Judith Flanders, “Boxing Day is for Giving,” The New York Times (26 December 2008)
Barbara Mikkelson, “Boxing Day,” www.snopes.com/holiday/christmas/boxingday.asp
Joel Millman, “Season’s Beatings: ‘Boxing Day’ Takes a Pugilistic Turn,” The Wall Street Journal (26 December 2009)
William Rivière, Echoes of War (London 1997)
Claire Suddath, “Boxing Day,” Time, 25 December 2009
Woodlands Junior School, “British Christmas Customs and Traditions: Boxing Day,” www.Projectbritain.com