Boxing Day Explained for Americans (Let’s Try This Again)

26 Dec

Okay, okay.  I was a bit of a stinker last year.  This time around, I’ll be more accurate.

No, really.

So, Boxing Day.  There are actually a few stories of its origins, and being an aging goth-type, this one is my favourite.

In the early 15th century, the House of Percy controlled the area we now call County Yorkshire, England and collected taxes as a means to subsidise their already substantial wealth and influence.  The family would tax basically anything they could, (livestock, grain stores, even children), a practice that would eventually lead to the Yorkshire rebellion in 1489 when they tried to enforce yet another tax to fund Henry VII’s war in Brittany.

One of the taxes they levied was on grave plots, but only when occupied by a corpse.  Of course, they didn’t dare enforce this tax on cemeteries or crypts on church grounds, but any other place where the deceased would be buried permanently would be subject to the tax.  The idea is that if there is land that the Percy family controlled being used, they deserved tribute for that use. A small army of assessors were sent out twice per year (December with all work to be completed by Christmas Day, and June) to not only count up the graves, but everything else that was subject to collection.  Note that the assessor’s job was just that.  Collection was a whole different thing.

Anyway, during spring and summer months, it was important to get dead bodies in the ground quickly.  Decomposition happens rapidly during this time and also begs for insect infestations.  However, as colder autumn and winter months came, you could wait around awhile, and that’s exactly what they did when dealing with the corpses of those not fortunate enough to be buried on hallowed ground.

Weather permitting, the shrouded bodies would be hidden wherever possible, away from the prying eyes of the tax assessors. Disused barrels was just one method, as they often times already had markings on them to denote duty had been paid.

After the tax assessors’ work was done and had left the area, (usually just before Christmas), the graves for all the bodies would be dug.  This was a community effort, with nearly any able-bodied person (including pre-teen children) lending a hand. If you’ve ever tried to dig a hole in the ground during winter, you know this is hard work.  Add in the time constraints of  extremely short winter days, and you know this is hellish work.

Carpenters, coopers, and anyone else who could build a box, would be hard at work putting together coffins.

Christmas Day, would then be celebrated, with only those who tended animals and such actually doing any work.

And then, on 26 December, the bodies of loved ones would be placed in their boxes.  Any priests trustworthy enough to not spill the beans about the tax dodge would come out to do all the necessary blessings.  Again, no other work would really get done, as this was a day that was to allow for proper mourning and reflection.

The tradition stuck in the area (even after the tax in question was lifted), largely at the insistence of various craftsman/artisan guilds.  Guilds (not unlike today’s unions) held significant influence.  While they often quarreled with nobles, they were effective at getting their way, especially during 15th century when advancements in steel work made certain trades less a commodity, and more of a necessity.  The arguments in favour of making Boxing Day a “day off” being that it should be a day of thanks for the services of their members after years of working for the greater community good (building boxes/coffins for no pay) with no returns.

The practice was purely localized to Yorkshire and the immediate area for roughly 5 centuries until the coal-producing (and increasingly industrialised) North of England came to prominence during the 19th century in ways it never had previously.  Factory workers particularly took to the idea, so much so that Boxing Day Strikes took place in 1901-1905.  By 1905, the strikes had caused so much havoc, property damage, and lost production time, that most industrialists gave in.

So there ya go!  The origins of Boxing Day…

…That I completely fabricated.  Again.



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