Boxing day? As in Ali, Frazier and Sugar Ray? Uncle Joe and Cousin Billy Bob getting into it after too much eggnog? Nope! The British Day After Christmas when the servants were traditionally given boxes of money. Or perhaps the opening of the alms-boxes in churches, to spread the money amongst the less fortunate. If you've been a fan of "Downton Abbey" you remember the servants' ball, where the Lord of the Manor dances with the lowliest of scullery maids. Seeing as all these folks probably had to work on Christmas Day, it seems only fitting.
My mom, the Anglophile, has always tried to preserve many British Christmas traditions that have been bowdlerized by the Americans. My gifts from her usually include a jar of Devon cream, lemon curd or Crosse & Blackwell Branston Pickle. Christmas Eve morning, the household stops for the broadcast on the BBC of the Lesson in Carols from the Kings College choir at Cambridge University. The sound of the first plaintive notes of "Once in Royal David's City" still gives me chills.
Mom insists that Christmas BEGINS the day OF Christmas. As in the twelve days of. As in, December 25 is the day that the partridge and the pear tree arrived by UPS. Christmas continues until January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, which is the purported day the Wise Men arrived at the stable. (Only 12 days across the desert on a camel? I think not!) My question is, after all that time, was there STILL no room at the Inn? Surely there would have been a room by then? Mom tut-tuts at all the forlorn Christmas trees lying in the gutter on December 26. But since most Americans put up their trees on Thanksgiving Day (a full MONTH) before Christmas, they most likely need to do this to reduce the risk of conflagration!
For years, my family has had Crackers on the table for Christmas dinner. (Not the Ritz kind, but those shiny wrapped bundles that you pull apart to open them with a bang). I was intrigued to learn that the tradition of wearing fancy headgear harkens back to the Saturnalia celebrations. Christmas after all historically encompasses many of the pagan winter holidays like Yule, Solstice and Saturnalia. Our unsuspecting dinner guests would be required to wear the silly tissue hat all through the meal. And Mom wonders why they never accepted another invitation from us? It warms my heart that you see crackers pretty regularly in the U.S. these days. Maybe mom's mission to Anglicize us all is working?
Fear not: Mom is an equal opportunity critic. Even the American traditions aren't safe. She takes it upon herself to inform hapless sales clerks that the reindeer in "The Night Before Christmas" is NOT named Donner (that would be the name of the group in the 1800's that got stranded in the Rocky Mountains in a blizzard and ended up eating each other to survive). Furthermore, mom points out, the poem is really called "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Get it right people. The reindeer in the original poem was named "Donder" which is close to the Dutch word for thunder. Which makes sense since "Blitzen" is the word for lightning. After a little research, I found that the GERMAN word for thunder is indeed "Donner" so she's only partly right. But Clement Moore (who wrote the poem) called him Donder, so Donder it should be. The poor lady in the Brighton store the other day didn't know what had hit her.
Bless her heart, Mom has good intentions.
Merry Christmas to all .. the turtle doves are in the mail.