This is an update of a story published previously.
On December 19, 1663 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary about running an errand: “Thence by coach to my shoemaker’s and paid all there, and gave something to the boys’ box against Christmas.” It's one of the earliest references to the English tradition of putting together a box of money, gifts, hand-me-downs and even leftover food for servants who had to work Christmas day and got the next day off to spend with their families. I've written previously:
It was a holiday about equity- ensuring that everyone got a day off, even those who had to work on Christmas. It was a real buy-nothing day; you were supposed to use up what you had left over and give away what you didn't need.
When I was a kid, the stores were not even allowed to open; the sales started on the 27th, when we would all line up in front of Sam the Record Man to get the latest albums at big discounts.
Now Boxing Day is an orgy of consumption that starts early in the morning in English-speaking countries other than the USA, and is now even called Boxing Week to keep peddling the bargains until New Years. I suppose it makes good economic sense, clearing everything out at discount after the holiday, but it does miss the spirit of the day. It also isn't nearly as big a deal as it used to be, thanks to the spread of Black Friday and online shopping, which has seriously cut into it. Why wait until after the holidays for a bargain when you can get them any time?
My kids found Boxing Day to be a lot more fun than Christmas; they didn't spend half the day in the car visiting Grandma and Great-Grandma, listening to dad rant about how much stuff there was and how would we carry it all; they got to stay home in their jammies and play with the toys and eat all the leftover cookies.
Perhaps Americans were too egalitarian to have much of a servant class or too cheap to give them a day off, I don't know. But they are missing something, it is a great tradition.
UPDATE: readers point out that the USA was not egalitarian at all:
This completely fails to acknowledge the multiple-centuries long intentional, forced, uncompensated labor of kidnapped, enslaved Africans in the U.S.- from which the country STILL benefits to this day. It'd be more probable to argue that the tradition didn't survive because white Americans didn't value the lives of their enslaved servants enough to practice any modicum of compassion (in the form of a “day off” or otherwise).
Most of the english speaking world has the day off today, in what started as a tradition of helping and sharing, and ended up at the mall.
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