St. Stephen with rubber ducks


Typical American observances on December 26th often include indigestion, lethargy and contemplation of furtive gift returns. For our British, Irish, Canadian and New Zealander cousins, the day after Christmas brings another holiday: Boxing Day.

For the uninitiated, Boxing Day has nothing to do with Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis or a pugilistic contest of any sort.

Like Christmas in the U.S., Boxing Day only became a national holiday in the U.K. in the mid-19th century. Queen Victoria can be credited with its formal consecration.

In most regards, Boxing Day is Christmas Part II. While the origins of the name are debated, most agree that the English custom of giving Christmas Boxes —- what we call presents —- is the most likely name origin. On the day after Christmas, affluent people would give their servants gifts (boxes) and the servants would take them home to their families. Likewise, the churches would put up collection boxes for money to be used as aid for the poor.

The Irish have a novel twist on the holiday. This is only right as these are the people for whom “Irish sunglasses” (two black eyes) are facetiously named. In Ireland, Boxing Day is referred to as St. Stephen’s Day. St. Stephen was purportedly martyred for believing in Jesus. Along with this, the holiday is associated with the “Wren Boys.” In Ireland, the Wrens Boys would stone Wrens to death; and then with faces blackened, carry their catch across town selling them to residents. This arguably barbaric custom has been abandoned, but modern Wrens Boys still dress up and cross the town collecting money for charities.

Ferne Arfin, a travel writer for About.com, reminds us that Boxing Day in times past was the scene of fancy dress fox hunts on horseback. The hunts having been outlawed have been replaced by formal affairs that often devolve into farce: “I once went Beagling on Boxing Day, on an estate in Northern Ireland. The local hunt’s pack of hounds was set loose to chase a dragged scent… Everyone else chased the hounds over hill and dale, fields and fences… on foot.”

The event then took a turn. As Arfin continues, “most of us were stragglers, a rag tag mob of muddy ramblers spread out over what felt like several counties… I lost my wellies while attempting to cross a plowed field diced into chunks the size of suitcases and had to be rescued.”

Further down the absurdist path, there’s the annual Rubber Ducky Race. It’s organized by the Lions Club in Kenilworth, Warwickshire. Participants pay £1 for a rubber duck that “swims” in a race along Finham Brook from Kenilworth Castle Ford, across Abbey Fields to the finish line. While there are nominal prizes for the win, place and show duck wranglers, the majority of funds go to support local charities.

In all the hijinks it might be easy to lose the central point of Boxing Day: charity. So much of our culture in the U.S. derives from the influence of the U.K.: our language; predominant religious traditions; manner of dress… Somehow though, we never took up Boxing Day. One might argue that this oversight is to our collective detriment. Perhaps we didn’t have the obvious feudalism that spawned the largess of nobles upon their servants, but we most certainly have many who could use just one more day of Christmas spirit. Just as there are those whose clarion is to “put Christ back in Christmas,” perhaps we should put the “Box” back in Boxing Day.