Journal of Holiday Greeting Studies, Boxing Day Edition

On Christmas Day, we went out to a spot on the other side of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to check out the bird life on a trail around a tidal marsh and channel. There was lots to see — mostly waterfowl and shore birds with the odd raptor and corvid thrown into the mix. We encountered many two-legged mammals, too. Generally speaking, when I find myself passing someone else on a trail, I make it a point to acknowledge the other person in what I hope is a friendly way. That just means saying hi as we pass. If the greeting’s returned, that makes for a small moment of grace in which my fellow walkers and I are no longer strangers. If the greeting’s not returned, I try not to take it personally. Some of the people we passed the other day responded to a “hi” by saying “Merry Christmas.” Nothing wrong with that, but I admit that to me the phrase feels a little stilted, and I didn’t lead with it myself because, you know, not everyone you run into along the way is celebrating that particular occasion. In any case, it was a good walk with lots of birds and perhaps people were feeling a little less shy about greeting each other because of the day.

Then yesterday, December 26, we went for a walk in the Berkeley hills. I turned our conversation toward the topic of two observances that fall on the day after Christmas: St. Stephen’s Day and Boxing Day. Would it be appropriate, I wondered, to wish someone “Happy St. Stephen’s Day”? When one recalls the occasion commemorated by the day — the stoning death of the man reputed to be the first Christian martyr — no. But how about saying “Happy Boxing Day”? It’s a curiosity, for sure, dating back to the 18th century English custom of giving employees and tradespeople gifts or cash the day after Xmas. But despite its obscure origins and non-American provenance, I figure lots of people have heard of it. So I decided to try it out as a greeting for hikers we met along the trail.

And I’m delighted to report that the general reaction (from about 10 parties we passedo n the trail) seemed to be, well, delight. People laughed or smiled and said “happy Boxing Day” in return. Why? I’m thinking because it was unexpected and just arcane enough to be recognized as an attempt at humor, at sharing the fun of being outdoors together on a holiday. Or something. You can try it yourself in 364 days.

In the meantime, Happy National Fruitcake Day.

Boxing Day: A Critique

While perusing the Grand World Treasury of Digital Distractions for “information” about the various observances that take place December 26–including England’s Boxing Day–I happened across the following. It’s from the December 31, 1825, number of The Portfolio, a London magazine “Comprising the Wonders of Art and Nature, Extraordinary Particulars Connected with Poetry, Painting, Music, HIstory, Voyages & Travels.”


At length the long-anticipated and wished-for day arrives; all classes from the merchants clerk down to the parish Geoffrey Muffincap, are on the tip-toe of expectation. Many and various are the ways of soliciting a Cristmas [sic] gift. The clerk, with respectful demeanour and simpering face, pays his principal the compliments of the season, and the hint is taken; the shopman solicits a holiday, in full expectation of the usual gift accompanying the consent; the beadle, dustmen, watchmen, milkmen, pot-boys &c. all ask in plain terms for a Christmas-box, and will not easily take a refusal; crowds of little boys are seen thronging the streets at an early hour with rolleu papers in their hands, these are specimens of their talent in penmanship, which they attempt to exhibit in every house in their respective parishes; four or five of these candidates for a “box” are seen collected together to watch the success of one, who, bolder than the rest, has ventured first to try his luck. Woe to the tradesman who gives his mite: a hundred applications are sure to succeed a successful one, and what with their hindering the usual business of their shop, and their importunities to shew their “pieces” the poor man has no peace of his life. The money obtained in this way is generally expended the same evening at some of the theatres. It is truly amusing to trace the progress of boxing-day with the generality of those who go from ddorto door collecting this customary largess.— To illustrate this I subjoin a short journal of the day’s proceeding written by one of these gentry and forwarded to his father in the country.


“Got up at 7 o clock—quite dark—struck a light, and cleaned my master’s shoes; while I was about it, thought I might as well clean mistress’s and little master’s—mistress gave me 5s. last year. Mary, the maid, offered to take mistress’s shoes up to her—would not let her—told her they were not finished, meant to take them up myself. Breakfasted at half past eight—could not eat muchwent up stairs to ask the governor for a day’s holiday, he grumbled, but gave me leave to go—put his hand in his waistcoat pocket—expected 5s. at least—all expectation,—he drew out his hand and with it his pen knife. I looked very foolish and felt my face as hot as fire—wished him a merry Christmas; thanked me, gave me half-a-crown, and said times were very bad—thanked him and went to fetch my mistress’s shoes up; she gave me nothing; she may do them herself another time.—Dressed myself and went out a boxing—first to Mr. Scragg’s the butcher—he told me master had not yet paid his Christmas bill—no go—went next to the bakers; got 6s. collected altogether £2. 12s.—called on Sam Groomly—went together to Pimlico, I stood treat at dinner; parted from him; and at about a quarter past four got to my dear Sally’s to tea—took her and her sister to the Olympic—a very fine place—saw them home, and promised Sal to go and see her on twelfth day night. Got back to my lodging about half past twelve with 3s. 2½d. in my pocket—spent a great deal: but Christmas is but once a year.”

This, like many other of our ancient customs, is much abused, and is made the vehicle for much annoyance; yet at the same time so much has been done towards depriving the lower classes of their amusements, that we cannot wonder at their making the most of those that remain.