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Being spoilt at my gran's, spiced ham on the table and too much sherry in the trifle - ah, those wonderful Boxing Days of childhood

The highlight of festivities for the young Paul Hopkins was visiting his paternal grandmother's home and stuffing his face with her fabulous food

By Paul Hopkins

When I was a child we had two Christmases. There was the big day itself and then Boxing Day. Secretly, and not without its attendant guilt, I preferred the latter. We would visit my paternal grandmother's house, which, in the days before my father's first car - a Morris Minor he bought for the princely sum of £90 - involved my parents and us three kids travelling by two buses across to the far side of the city.

My grandmother's house, a big, grey-brick edifice built just after the First World War, was also home to my father's two younger sisters, unmarried because they had stayed home to look after 'Mother', long widowed and permanently attired in black.

Being unwed, my two aunts and a third, older sister home for the holidays from her Civil Service job in Chiswick, spoiled us kids rotten.

Boxing Day - or St Stephen's Day, of which more anon - at my grandmother's house was even better than Santa Claus, for we always seemed to get bigger and better presents than even the man himself had managed.

Even the wrapping paper was of a better quality, and there were ribbons and gift tags too! The food - oh, the food - was a veritable feast compared to our seemingly less fabulous fare the previous day; the turkey and all the trimmings and the spiced ham and puddings and trifles, with so much whisky and sherry in them that a second helping was guaranteed to make me giddy.

"Why can't you get your turkey like that?" my father would say to my mother as he stuffed his face, and I always felt sorry for her as I kicked my little brother's shin under the table and she just smiled politely and said nothing.

"It's far from it you were reared, Kevin Hopkins," my aunt Claire, the funny one, would say to him.

The fire in the good room was always at full blaze, its sparking flames throwing up myriad images of yellow and orange dancing silhouettes. The whiff of cigarette smoke and whisky and gins and tonics and the grown-ups' chatter, which descended into hilarity with each clinking, iced glass poured, intoxicated me further as I enveloped myself in the warm, fuzzy glow of Boxing Day, the return to our dark, cold terraced house that night always bringing me down to earth with the thought that Christmas was well and truly over 'til next year.

And that attendant guilt of course, as I gazed at our sparse Christmas spruce with the dodgy lights. Still, there was that cut of spiced ham my aunt had given my mother to see us through the week.

Despite the lively images suggested by the name, Boxing Day has nothing to do with pugilistic expositions between tanked-up family members who have dearly been looking forward to taking a round out of each other for the past year. Likewise, it does not gain its name from the overpowering need to rid the house of an excess of wrappings and mountains of now useless cardboard boxes the day after St Nick arrives to turn a charming and orderly home into a maelstrom of discarded wrapping paper. The name also has nothing to do with returning unwanted gifts to the stores they came from, hence its common association with hauling about boxes on the day after Christmas.

The day after Christmas is celebrated in many countries but, the morning after the night before in a what-were-we-doing-again bout of amnesia and did aunt Jane really fall into the sherry trifle, few of us are really sure of what they're celebrating, when it started or why.

The best bet to unearthing Boxing Day's origins can be found in the song, Good King Wenceslas, the chap "who looked out on the feast of Stephen". According to the Christmas carol, Wenceslas, who was Duke of Bohemia in the early 10th century, was surveying his land on December 26 when he saw a poor man gathering wood in the middle of a snowstorm. Moved by the man's dishevelled demeanour, the king gathered up surplus food and wine, left over from Christmas Day, and carried them in 'boxes' through the blizzard to the peasant's door.

The alms-giving tradition has always been closely associated with the Christmas season - hence the canned food drives and Salvation Army Santas that once peppered our neighbourhoods during the winter - but King Wenceslas' good deed came the day after Christmas, when the English poor received most of their charity.

King Wenceslas didn't start Boxing Day, but the Church of England might have. During Advent, Anglican parishes displayed a box into which churchgoers put their monetary donations. On the day after Christmas, the boxes were broken open and their contents distributed among the poor.

Maybe. But wait: there's another possible story about the holiday's origin.

The day after Christmas was also the traditional day on which the aristocracy distributed presents (boxes) to servants and employees - a sort of institutionalised Christmas-bonus party. The servants returned home, opened their boxes and had their Christmas on what became known as Boxing Day.

So which version is correct? Well, both. Or neither. No one, it seems, is really sure. Both the church boxes and the servant presents definitely existed, although historians disagree on which practice inspired the holiday.

Today's Boxing Day festivities have very little to do with charity. Instead, they revolve around food, football, visits from friends, more food and more drinking down the pub.

Boxing Day has been a national holiday in Ireland, England, Wales, and Canada since 1871. Visits to grandmother and other family obligations apart, there isn't anything left to do on Boxing Day except eat leftovers, drink and watch TV. Just as Americans watch football on Thanksgiving, people in the UK and Ireland have Boxing Day soccer matches and horse races. For the wealthy living in the country, they might even participate in a fox hunt.

The annual Boxing Day fox hunts - which have been held all over the English countryside for hundreds of years - were imperilled in 2005 when Parliament banned the traditional method of using dogs to kill the prey. Despite the dogs' limited role (they can still chase the animal, but they can't harm it), thousands of people turn out at Boxing Day fox hunts on these islands.

The Republic of Ireland, the home of my youth, still refers to the holiday as St Stephen's Day - allegedly the first Christian martyr stoned to death, although likely the first martyr was one Cassius - and they have their own tradition called Hunting the Wren, in which boys fasten a fake wren to a pole and parade it through town. Also known as Wren Day and still very much alive in towns along the south-east coast, the tradition supposedly dates to 1601, to the Battle of Kinsale, in which the Irish tried to sneak up on the English invaders, but were betrayed by the song of an overly vocal wren - although this legend's veracity is also highly debated. Years ago a live wren was hunted and killed for the parade, but modern sentiments have deemed this too gruesome.

Has the day after Christmas Day changed much down the years? Not much, perhaps, apart from the fact that we probably don't watch as much TV, given that there's 57 channels and nothing on and streaming and its ilk bring us must-see movies long before terrestrial TV's holiday viewing.

If anything, Boxing Day has evolved to an extended Christmas afternoon, except for those in the many services and industries who traditionally have to work on these days of days.

It's a holiday with presents that have already been opened and a dinner that has been eaten; a holiday best spent lounging around in brightly coloured sweaters, wondering, lazily and lethargically, what to do next.

As for me, I continued to visit my aunts on Boxing Day, long after my grandmother had passed away, now with my own three children in tow - and they too marvelled at the presents lavished upon them, and I indulged in whisky.

Continued that is, until my two aunts passed away, one of them, the younger, confessing to me once that her great regret was she had never had children of her own.

Children to indulge and spoil over Christmas and St Stephen's Day.

Belfast Telegraph


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