Editor’s note: For years, one of our most popular contributors was James Wysong, a flight attendant and the author of Flying High with A Frank Steward. Here is a story he posted in 2006 about celebrating his first Boxing Day in London. Enjoy and Happy Boxing Day.
It was Christmas Day, and I was a newly minted flight attendant alone in England. I had recently been transferred to Pan Am’s London base and had just completed my first trip. Although I knew practically no one in England, I was excited to be in the land of Charles Dickens at Christmas.
Three days earlier, I had found a room for rent in a suburb of London. I didn’t really know the other flight attendants with whom I would be sharing the house, but not wanting to spend Christmas alone, I had high hopes that at least one person would be there when I arrived.
I spent a small fortune on a cab, since all public transportation was closed for the holiday. I turned the key in the lock and was greeted by a note:
Welcome, James. We all went back to the States for Christmas. All calls by you will be charged to your rent (so don’t call the U.S.!). The heat is operated by 50-pence coins. Merry Xmas.
The only hint of Christmas in the house was a scattering of tinsel and the wreath on the door. There was no television or stereo, just an AM radio with a broken antenna. The cupboards were bare, apart from pita chips and half a bottle of booze lacking a label. I of course had no 50-pence coins, so I wrapped myself tightly in a blanket and made the best of a crummy situation. There I was, feasting on stale chips, drinking what I hoped was sherry and listening to an Elvis Christmas on the radio. Ah, good memories.
I awoke the next day to the radio DJ blaring “Happy Boxing Day!” Apparently, for the British, it was a holiday almost as important as Christmas. I took it as a second chance for some yuletide fun. I searched for a nearby pub and was the first to enter when it opened. I ordered a pint of cider, a big plate of fish and chips, got 10 pounds worth of 50-pence coins for later, and took a prime seat in front of the largest television in the place.
After my third pint, the locals started coming in. I asked the bartender when the matches would begin. He looked at me with a confused expression.
“You know, the boxing matches?” I asked, helpfully.
He smiled and asked if I was joking. When he realized I was serious, he called the other bartender over and asked me to repeat what I had just said. I did so, but not as confidently as before. They burst out laughing, and those among the patrons who had overheard the conversation joined in the hilarity. I was officially the stupid American. Even though they were laughing at me, I decided to laugh with them.
I had just figured that since Americans did football on New Year’s Day, the British must have boxing matches the day after Christmas. I soon learned that while Boxing Day has nothing to do with fisticuffs, its origins are in fact obscure. It may have to do with feudal lords and their serfs, or maybe the poor box at church. The story that makes most sense to me is that it used to be common practice in Britain for servants to carry boxes to their employers when they arrived for work on the day after Christmas; the employers would then put coins in the boxes as special end-of-year gifts. Thus the name Boxing Day.
Whatever the origin, Boxing Day is now a day of Christmas sales, family visiting, soccer and horse racing (and cricket in Australia, where Boxing Day falls in summer).
When the laughter in the pub settled down, I attempted to make an unobtrusive exit. But the bartender grabbed my arm and poured me a complimentary pint, saying he hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time. The word got around the pub quickly and suddenly I was the most popular person in the place and I quickly got over my initial embarrassment.
The rest of the night was spent playing darts and drinking too much cider with my newfound friends. Luckily, I have always been able to laugh at myself, and that was my best Boxing Day ever. Now that I reside back in the U.S., the day after Christmas still holds a very special place in my heart.
Happy Boxing Day, everyone!