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The Curious Case of Boxing Day

What do Charles Dickens, crazy Medieval people in masks, the ancient Greek titan Saturn, King Wenceslas, and Muhammad Ali all have in common? More than you might think.

Boxing Day isn’t really a holiday in the United States, but it has a long tradition in Europe. It started with an ancient Roman holiday called Saturnalia, during which slaves could dress up in their masters’ clothes, feast, and get away with behavior that would otherwise get them beaten and killed—one day of madness in which all of the usual social expectations were turned completely upside-down.

boxing day came from the roman holiday saturnelia

The Roman holiday migrated into Northern Europe, where Medieval holiday-makers watered down the tradition by associating it with Christmas—but the times were still pretty wild. During the Christmas revelries, a villager was chosen to be the Lord of Misrule, and, for one day, all of his wishes (especially the most absurd ones) had to be obeyed. During the Feast of Misrule (also known as the Feast of Fools), the ugly could be beautiful, the despised could be important, and the well-behaved were doing everything wrong. If the Lord of Misrule wanted all the men to wear skirts and waltz while making pig noises…well, that’s the sort of Christmas madness that kept everyone from thinking too hard about how miserable it was to live during the Middle Ages. (The good old days, when visiting a doctor decreased your odds of surviving an illness, and the elaborate sewer systems devised by the Romans had been long abandoned in favor of communal middens. Yay!)

the misrule of boxing day of the middle ages

Even the church got in on the action, when they appointed one of the choir boys to act as “Boy Bishop,” dress up in miniature bishop’s attire, and give orders the rest of the clergy from St. Nichol’s Day (December 6th) until Holy Innocent’s Day (December 28th). (Madness that was, to be fair, limited by the knowledge that the boy would be back to a subservient position for the other 342 days of the coming year.) A bit of mischief was expected, such as ordering dessert for every meal, but nothing too far out of line. The tradition was, in fact, considered so harmless that some parishes still embrace the practice.

boxing day choir boy "Boy Bishop" mischief

And these wacky antics kept everyone warm during the winter season for a few hundred years, even in the courts of kings, but after the death of Edward VI in 1553 (the last king to appoint an official courtly Lord of Misrule), the dominance of more conservative religious practices followed by the rise of Enlightenment philosophies shifted the mood away from the sheer uncontrolled excesses of Medieval revelry and toward more restrained forms of social expression, so the Lords of Misrule in all their insanity were gradually displaced by the more sedate Masters of Ceremony.

Victorian era boxing day feast of fools

And the Victorian Era, that bastion of all things restrained and polite, oversaw yet another interesting change. A few households still practiced a very sedate version of the Feast of Fools, in which the master and mistress of the house would invite the servants to a feast (which the servants themselves had prepared in advance), and during which the servants would sit at the main table, while the masters served the food. But that socially awkward practice soon devolved into a more sedate family festival, in which the only disorder was that every member of the household had to help stir the Christmas pudding.

Feast of Fools and the annual stirring of the Christmas pudding

The fusion of the Feast of Fools with Christmas also opened up new associations—specifically with the feast of St. Stephen (which takes place the day after Christmas), and celebrates the giving of alms, under the supervision of specially-appointed deacons, including the famous King Wenceslas, who set forth with his page in a winter storm to give steak, wine, and logs to a poor man gathering wood in the forest. The moral of the carol is clear:
“Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”

boxing day derived from feast of St. Stephen

The tradition became more domestic when it became increasingly common practice for the wealthy to offer a gift box to their servants (mostly containing a small sum of money), in recognition of their faithful service for the previous year. Hence the name “Boxing Day.” Basically, the day evolved from a ceremonial exchange of power to a ceremonial day of charity. The raucous public festivals and parades were replaced by parlor games, theater pantomimes, and organized public caroling. And Queen Victoria so thoroughly approved of these practices, that she made Boxing Day an official national holiday in 1871.

the wealthy to offer a gift box to their servants (mostly containing a small sum of money), in recognition of their faithful service for the previous year. Hence the name “Boxing Day.”

So, as a personal and historical challenge to yourself, you might consider adopting your own version of the Misrule/Boxing Day traditions. Why not challenge yourself to do something totally out of character, just for fun? And then challenge yourself to do something important for someone else? Or at least show recognition to the people in your life who’ve added value to the previous year…

And what does Muhammed Ali have to do with all of this? Technically, nothing at all. But for a guy who embodies the spirit of doing crazy things in the face of impossible odds, upsetting the way that everyone thought the world was supposed to be, and actively contributing to the lives of others…he’s a pretty amazing exemplar of Boxing Day in all of its incarnations.

Muhammed Ali and Boxing Day - Giving back during the holidays

All best wishes for an amazing New Year!

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