Today is Boxing Day, either officially or unofficially. It’s unofficial in places where the day after Christmas falls on a weekend and the official holiday is moved to Monday — but even in that case, the day is often unofficially called “Boxing Day” anyway.
Nobody is quite sure where the term “Boxing Day” comes from. Or to be more accurate, it’s one of those things where a great many people ARE sure, but they don’t agree. It might refer to the “alms box” used in Christian churches to collect donations for the less fortunate. The donations were traditionally distributed on the Feast of Saint Stephen, which is also the day after Christmas.
In Great Britain, though, “Boxing Day” might refer to the practice, probably dating from the early 1600s, of giving a “Christmas box” to servants, postmen, and other service workers. A “Christmas box” was not always literally a box; it was some sort of gratuity, either money or gifts. This tradition may have stemmed from the practice of giving household servants the day off after Christmas to visit their families. They would often receive some sort of gifts, food, or cash to take with them.
Samuel Pepys mentions a Christmas box in his diary entry for December 19, 1663: “Thence by coach to my shoemaker’s and paid all there, and gave something to the boys’ box against Christmas.”
Another contending tradition comes from South Africa, where vendors actually knocked on doors to ask for a “Christmas box” — in this case it was generally not a box at all, but simply a gratuity for the year’s service.
Boxing day is observed in Commonwealth countries around the world, but not many other places — with the exception of Massachusetts, where December 26 has been proclaimed Boxing day since 1996 (but it’s just a proclamation; not an official holiday).
On Boxing day, 1871 in London, a new entertainment premiered: the very first production by the partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan. It was called “Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old”, and was “An entirely original Grotesque Opera in Two Acts.” Thespis was considered that era’s version of a Christmas special, and nobody, including Gilbert and Sullivan, expected it to be staged again after its initial run of 63 performances. Gilbert and Sullivan were not yet well known for comic operas — their renown didn’t arise until years later — and the musical score of Thespis wasn’t preserved. Only a bit of the music from the production has survived. It’s been restaged in modern times, though, since the 1950s, using other Gilbert and Sullivan tunes or original music. Thespis still isn’t one of the duo’s signature pieces, though, and didn’t win any prizes.
Marie Curie certainly won some prizes though; Nobels in two different fields (she’s still the only person to have done that). It was December 26, 1898 that she, along with her husband, published a paper announcing their discovery of the new element they called “radium.” She won the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics along with her husband, and then in 1911 was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work.
The Red Sox, famously, didn’t win another championship for 86 years.
December 26 boasts several other announcements and premiers as well. In 1919 Babe Ruth, who played for the Boston Red Sox, was a star. He had helped that team win three championships and that very year — as a pitcher who didn’t even play every day — he broke the single-season record for home runs. But his contract was sold, on December 26, to the Yankees, where he went on to help win seven league pennants and four World Series. He also set a new single-season home-run record (60) that stood for 34 years. The Red Sox, famously, didn’t win another championship for 86 years. Fans were sure it was a curse bestowed on the team for selling perhaps the greatest player the game ever knew.
It was another December 26, this time in 1963, that the British Invasion began. That was the day the Beatles first single was released in the US. The record was “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, with “I Saw Her Standing There” on the B side. It was their first number one record in the US, and it’s still #48 on the Billboard “Hot 100” list of all-time hit songs.
Quite a few well-known people have been born on December 26. In the field of computing, Charles Babbage was born on this day in 1791. He came up with the whole idea of digital, programmable computers. John Conway, born December 26, 1937, took that idea and developed the “Game of Life”, based on his invention of cellular automata.
A cellular automaton is an idea that’s simple in practice but leads to surprising outcomes. There is a regular grid of cells, like a sheet of digitized graph paper, where each cell can either be on or off, usually represented as either black or white. A simple set of rules governs whether each cell keeps its current state or switches to off (if it’s on) or on (if it’s off). the rules have to do with the neighboring cells — for instance, if a cell is bordered by four cells that are on, then it might switch its state, but if it’s bordered by just two cells that are on, its state might be unchanged. The Game of Life shows that if you put a set of such rules into effect, you see some shapes persist, evolve, and even move.
Movement is one of the things that fascinates us about about puppets, at least in the hands of a master puppeteer. One of the best was Carrol Spinney, the puppeteer (or Muppeteer) animating Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Spinney was born on December 26, 1933 and started puppeteering in the 1950s, mostly on TV shows in Boston. He encountered Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, at a Puppeteers of America festival in 1969, and Spinney joined the cast of Sesame Street that same year for its first season.
But now it’s time to wrap this up, because although I might agree with Oscar the Grouch and love trash, it’s time to clean up after the Christmas festivities. Happy Boxing Day all!