boxing day and the hunting of the wren

Here in the UK, it’s Boxing Day. In my household it’s a more relaxed Christmas Day, where we eat left-overs and play with our new toys. The name comes from the tradition of giving your servants and tradesmen a ‘Christmas Box’, either food, gifts or cash.

Samuel Pepys talks about contributing to the boys box against Christmas at his shoemaker in 1663:

Thence by coach to my shoemaker’s and paid all there, and gave something to the boys’ box against Christmas.

although he makes no mention of anything relevant on the 26th itself. A few years later, in 1668, he moans about boxes having cost him a lot of money this year.

In 1710, Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, complained:

By the Lord Harry, I shall be undone here with Christmas boxes. The rogues of the coffee-house have raised their tax, every one giving a crown, and I gave mine for shame, besides a great many half-crowns to great men’s porters!

It was pronounced a Bank Holiday day by Queen Victoria in the second half of the nineteenth century, but there’s been an association with alms-giving for centuries before Pepys wrote about it- the 26th is also St Stephen’s Day, the Feast of Stephen as per the carol. St Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was in charge of handing out alms to the poor and when he got cross with people for not contributing enough, they stoned him to death. So Pepys and Swift got away lightly, really.

On the Isle of Man and in parts of Wales and Ireland- the Celtic edges of Europe- it’s also the day of The Hunting of the Wren. These days no wrens are harmed during the enactment of the ritual, which goes back to pre-Christian solstice celebrations and the story of the Goddess Arianrhod. Ren means King/Queen or Lord/Lady in Welsh, which gives more context to the story.

In my area the traditional Boxing Day hunts still meet with their red coats and their hounds and are countered by now equally traditional saboteurs.

I am curled up by the fire watching Mr AL and Talking Child play Super Mario Odyssey and considering whether to eat more cold roast potatoes.

Happy festive season.

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