Today is, in many countries of the British Commonwealth of Nations, a holiday. Known by several names, particularly in England it’s called “Boxing Day.” Where did this come from? It’s not clear, truth be told. The concept of giving gifts to servants and other hired hands goes back centuries. Some claim that the deeds of Good King Wenceslaus in the song the origin. The Good King sees a peasant who is gathering fire wood in a snowstorm. He’s also travelled a very long way to find it and so must return the long way carrying his load. Wenceslas was actually Duke of Bohemia in what today would be the Czech Republic. The day of the events in the carol is the Feast of Stephen- St Stephen’s Day, Dec. 26th – Boxing Day. Wenceslaus gives the poor man food and drink, and probably allows him to warm himself by the fire. Indeed, Wenceslas is considered a saint, and after his murder in 935 (by agents of his own brother (Boleslav the Cruel!) he was instantly considered saintly and a martyr. A cult grew up in Bohemia, and in England, around his legend and his legendary generosity. Was he truly that generous? We don’t know really. But, since the carol was written as late as 1853 and the holiday predates that, it isn’t the origin.
The “boxing” appendage could refer to a couple of things: the boxes given to servants on the day after Christmas containing gifts, bonuses, perhaps left-over wine and food. The original re-gifting….
Or, it relates to the breaking open of the alms box, the poor box at the churches that contained money collected through the year for the needy of the community.
What it doesn’t refer to is pugilistic pursuits, unless there’s a fight breaks out over the re-gifted beverages I suppose.
And in Ireland, it’s Wren Day today. Today, Wren Boys dress up in straw outfits and parade through town with a (fake) wren bird on a pole. In centuries past, it was a live wren hunted, affixed to the pole, and later killed. That tradition is no more, lucky for the bird. They’re accompanied by mummers and musicians playing traditional Irish tunes, and as they sing songs they collect money. The money is used to have a dance that evening. There is no clear history of the origins of Wren day, or of the wren’s specific symbolism. There are legends of the wren’s song having disrupted some Irish battles, and of the wren having represented the past year. Whatever its origins, it’s a holiday that predates the Christian St Stephen’s Day.
However you plan to spend this day, please find time to be generous to someone or something. Perhaps I’ll share my smoked trout with the cat.