..by Anura Guruge
I came to the States this time around in 1986 (having spent one year previously 1967 – 1968). I was living in rural Maryland, in a brand new middle-class development, 4 bedroom colonials on 4 acres each. On the 4th of July I was invited to a big cookout at a neighbor’s house; he was a Maryland State Trooper. Another neighbor, a very presentable young lady in her mid-30s approaches me and asks: “So, tell me, how do they celebrate the 4th in England?“.
To this day I am proud and relieved that I had the presence of mind to immediately respond, without batting an eyelid: “Very quietly. Very quietly.“
Well, when it comes to ‘Boxing Day‘, the day after Christmas, i.e., December 26, a mandatory, cherished holiday in the U.K., that dates back centuries, things are the other way around. It is not celebrated in anyway in this country, though the Canadians (thanks to their antecedents) do indeed have it as an official holiday — as do most other Commonwealth Countries, e.g., Australia, South Africa (where they now call it ‘Goodwill Day‘) and New Zealand, though no longer in India or my Sri Lanka (both countries do having a surfeit of holidays). Some other European countries also celebrate December 26 as a holiday, but not as ‘Boxing Day’. To them it is just the second day of Christmas. As it now happens, by coincidence or otherwise, December 26 is the first day of the week long Kwanzaa. Maybe it should be made a holiday in the U.S. just on those grounds.
Despite its being so beloved in Britain, nobody actually 100% sure as to how this holiday came about and to what ‘Box’ it refers to! The theory that makes most sense is that this was the day that the workers, i.e., the serfs, got to celebrate Christmas — their services being required by their Lords and Masters on Christmas day. It is also believed to be the day that the workers got their ‘presents’ or bonuses from their master, the ‘box’ probably a reference to this. In my mind, within this context, I have images of women and children standing outside the manor house holding empty hat boxes waiting for them to be filled. As it happens, Boxing Day, December 26 is when the ‘Western Church’ celebrates “St. Stephen’s Day”, St. Stephen the Christian protomartyr, i.e., the first Christian to be martyred. So another theory is that ‘Boxing Day’ refers to the boxes left in churches, or outside churches, for collections for this Feast Day, and that the holiday per se is tied to the Feast.
In Britain Boxing Day is (or was when I lived there) a day devoted to recovering from Christmas and pursuing sports: football, cricket from down under on the telly, horse racing, possibly some rugby, and in those days (when it was legit) hunting. You could place bets on the horses and watch the races on telly. Many, including I in my 20s, would go to a football game — football violence at its height in those days. And yes, of course, we would watch cricket on the telly.
When I came to the States in 1986 as an adult (as opposed to the 14 year old) I was surprised that Boxing Day was not a holiday here, but not as surprised as I was to discover that people worked on Good Friday and Easter. I had never lived in a country where this had been the case, and I have lived in: Ceylon/Sri Lanka, France, England and Wales. Not that it really made a difference to me. I was lucky enough to be able to take off whatever days I didn’t want to work. Plus, I have been self-employed since 1992 (though to be honest I have always done some amount of work, i.e., writing, on all holidays, whether it be Christmas, Thanksgiving, Labor Day or New Year).
Until yesterday I had never bothered to compare the U.S. holiday structure with that of the U.K. (bearing in mind that there are variations depending on whether you are talking about England, Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales). Then I made the following chart. The first thing that surprised me was that the U.S. had more holidays — at least at the Federal level (e.g., Columbus Day and President’s Day). The other thing is how so many of the U.S. holidays are not on fixed dates. The U.K. I realized had no real memorial days — and Poppy Day is not a holiday! Many in the U.S. may not appreciate this, but for the last 30 years or so, most professionals and office workers in the U.K. take a 10 to 11 days break over Christmas using the 5 weeks (minimum) of vacation (per year) they get. So most stop work on December 23 and don’t go back until January 2 or 3 (depending on how the weekends factor in).
So this was my little bit of nostalgia for Boxing Day. Yes, in my heart I will celebrate Boxing Day this Wednesday. More than likely, because I watch it most days, I will watch some cricket.