Today is Boxing Day, traditionally a day of extreme rest for those who celebrate Christmas, due to the exhaustion caused by the previous day’s eating, drinking, and resting. Unless you’re one of those simply awful people who get up at 5am to queue for the stock that clothes shops couldn’t sell during the year, now reduced in price. Then it’s probably quite a tiring day, but that’s your fault, isn’t it? For the rest of us it’s a day for watching Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory or Raiders of the Lost Ark, and eating Quality Street and turkey & ham sandwiches.
There are competing theories as to why it’s called Boxing Day. The Oxford English Dictionary records a definition from the 1830s identifying the day as “the first week-day after Christmas-day, observed as a holiday on which post-men, errand-boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas-box.” A Christmas-box being a gift for those who rendered you some kind of service during the year. Like tipping your postman.Others suggest that the name comes from medieval European traditions of leaving a box to collect donations for the poor or St. Stephen. Sales are probably the most common Boxing Day tradition now, though a lot of sports restart today, satisfying the desire of those who wish to be active after Christmas Day (to play), and those who want to continue relaxing (to watch). If you have severe issues with your sense of self-worth, you and your friends might also be saddling up and chasing a fox around the countryside, followed by trumpet blasts and packs of hounds, who will of course eventually tear the living fox apart. A lovely post-Christmas activity for non-sociopathic, well-adjusted adults everywhere, and doubtless everyone involved has a great time.
Except the fox.
We don’t all call it Boxing Day though. In the United States, December 26 usually suffices, but here in Ireland it’s known as St. Stephen’s Day, or just Stephen’s Day for short. Which is obviously due to Catholicism having been the dominant religion here for so long, though even now that most people aren’t regular churchgoers, people still insist on calling the day Stephen’s Day. People get irrationally angry when other Irish people say Boxing Day, and even though I don’t mind what people call it, it does sound strange to me when I hear someone here call it Boxing Day. I think this animosity towards Boxing Day is simply a matter of people getting protective of the way they’ve always said something and resisting change, rather than being based on any religious feeling. Though I think there’s an element of “let’s keep this religious day’s name just in case it’s all true:” a way of paying lip service to religion without getting actually involved in anything associated with the religion, not surprising in a country where 85% of people identify as Catholic, yet only 30% of those attend Mass regularly.
So it’s not surprising that most people here observe St. Stephen’s Day as a strictly secular day. For those who work away from where they were brought up, Stephen’s Night is a popular night to head to the local pub and catch up with old friends. One of the oldest Irish Stephen’s Day traditions though, is decidedly pre-Christian: Hunting the Wren. The tradition was once widespread around the country (and in parts of Wales and France), but can still be found being observed in some towns today. As the wren (a little brown bird, if you’re not familiar with it) was often considered a symbol of the past year in Celtic mythology, hunting the wren was seen as a way to end the year (and also probably winter) and usher in the new one, and its promise of spring. Men, known as mummers or wren boys, would dress up in straw costumes or masks and go around the town, playing music, singing songs, and collecting donations door-to-door, often donated to a charity or school.
Celebrating pagan traditions while insisting on naming the day after a Christian saint is like so many Christmas traditions in Europe: mixing the Christian and pre-Christian, really reflecting what a complicated little continent this is, with so many different cultures layered on top of each other, c0-existing and blending with each other.