Saturday, December 26, 2009

boxing day

I was thinking about Christmas and its aftermath the other day. I had always heard about Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, but never why it was called that. What did it mean? A little internet research quickly turned up that it was probably British in origin, dating back to the time of Victoria, and, surprisingly (to me) a true expression of the class divide. One explanation from Time magazine:
The day after Christmas was also the traditional day on which the aristocracy distributed presents (boxes) to servants and employees— a sort of institutionalized Christmas bonus party. The servents returned home, opened their boxes, and had a second Christmas on what became known as Boxing Day.
Can you imagine Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, the lord of the manor lining up all his servants in the hall and bestowing gifts upon them? There could be no "gifting up." It was a one-way gift street. And only once a year. It seems after the main event of Christmas Day, when the lord had celebrated with his family, he could then, the day after the actual holiday, share some Christmas cheer with the lower classes. What better way to celebrate the holiday than to deeply underline the us and them by not exchanging gifts, and not gifting on the actual day? Second-class Christmas.


Some organizations are (unconsciously?) perpetuating this divide at their holiday office parties. Upper management serves some punch or eggnog to their staff, all with the intent and forced jollity of the season. But how different is it from the days of the manor house? Employees can't gift up—very bad—that would be the equivalent of brown-nosing. The uppers, by serving their employees, just reinforce the divide between the office tiers. If they really wanted to celebrate the spirit of the season they would be out among their staff, circulating, sharing stories around a horrible fruitcake. Not safely ensconced from all banter behind the eggnog bar. It's difficult to navigate business and social interaction.

Boxing Day, the second day of Christmas (two turtle doves!), is also St. Stephen's Day, and some think that the carol Good King Wenceslas holds a clue:
Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho' the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath'ring winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know'st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?" . . .

"Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither."

. . . Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.
As the ruling classes were less and less (obviously) prominent in society, regular folks could and would bestow a gift or tip to anyone who serves them, such as a paperboy, concierge, etc. I'm not against tipping the doorman, the housekeeper or anyone that has done you a service that you feel could use an extra perk around the holidays. Many of us, myself included, perpetuate this custom, not making the Boxing Day connection.

Today the holiday in the British isles has become an extra day off work, celebrated mostly as a shopping extravaganza, with folks racing to after-holiday sales. Some folks hold football matches or hunts. A few sites say that volunteering at shelters or places in need is also encouraged, but it's hard to determine how much of King Wenceslas remains.


My daughter and I were watching Kit Kittredge: An American Girl the other day and it was interesting to watch how much class played into The Great Depression—something I had never realized, even with my parents' and grandparents' stories of that era. As the heroine's family fortunes decline, she is ridiculed by her classmates, her parents shunned by neighbors—all because of the indignity of a lost job, taking in boarders, and the raising of chickens to sell eggs for profit. Kit gradually accepts her status and sees how little she differs from folks that a few weeks before she might have called tramps or hobos. There is a great scene at the end of the movie where the family sits down to Thanksgiving dinner, sharing the table with some of their hobo friends along with one of the town's prominent businessmen.

This is the message that I'm looking for. Not merely bestowing, but actually sharing. What a thought.

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