Diane Berger

Now that Thanksgiving is history, I wondered how many of you can remember the English song, “Christmas is a coming and the goose is getting fat. Please to put a penny in an old man’s hat. If ye haven’t got a penny, a ha-penny will do. If you haven’t got a ha-penny then God Bless you.”

Instead of removing the decorations from the Christmas tree on December 26th and placing it at the curb for pickup by the city, I think we would be better off to consider the Canadian Holiday of Boxing Day. In almost every English-speaking nation in the world, except the United States, Boxing Day is one of the Christmas holidays most honored traditions.

The origin of Boxing Day probably goes back eight centuries to the Middle Ages. In both large and small churches throughout England, money boxes were placed near the building’s entrance. These metal boxes were first brought to the British Isles by Roman soldiers as containers used to keep their winnings from games of chance. The boxes then found their way into sanctuaries as a means of gathering special offerings tied to the Feast of St. Stephen. In memory of that saint, who was stoned for his belief in the Christ and for preaching the gospel, church members were asked to place special offerings in the “alms” box throughout the year to help the area’s needy families. The box was kept locked until the Feast of St. Stephan, when it was opened by the priest and the contents distributed to the poorest of the poor.

Some legends state the boxes used by the Roman soldiers in gambling were first brought into churches because soldiers had gambled for the Christ’s clothing as he died on the cross. These boxes became symbols representing the gift of Christ’s sacrifice.

Another theory is tied to the rowdy Christmases of the Middle Ages. The wealthy, who were visited on December 25th by mobs of common people demanding food and drink, used their servants to hand out the treats, as well as to straighten up the household and the grounds once the rowdy masses departed. As a way of thanking their servants for performing this extra work, the elite would give them boxes filled with cloth, leather goods, and food.

Three centuries ago, servants in England began to bring their own boxes on the day after Christmas. Probably, due to the boxes in which gifts were given to servants in earlier days, it became a tradition that all employers would put coins into the boxes as a special year-end bonus. Leftovers from the Christmas feast were often also placed in the boxes.

It became a fully recognized holiday during the reign of Queen Victoria. With Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, leading the way, upper-class households were expected to share gifts with the poor on December 26th of each year, thereby increasing the Christmas generosity of the upper class to those who garnered so much of Christ’s attention while he walked the earth: the sick, lame, poor, and the forgotten. The holiday is about recognizing the mission to reach out to those who are not as fortunate, reaching deep into hearts and pockets to give sincere gifts of charity and love.

Modern day churches have gotten into the act as well. Almost every denomination takes up a special collection during the holidays for those in need. While most use envelopes or collection plates a few still use tin boxes that resemble the ones used centuries ago.

Many people in the United States still go out in groups at Christmas time to make sure that families who have fallen on hard times are given boxes of food, clothing, and toys during the holiday season. So while Boxing Day is all but unknown in America, its spirit is very much alive.

Much of this information came from Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas by Ace Collins.

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