Boxing Day / St. Stephen’s Day and Some Ancient Truths About Social Class and Food

Boxing Day. What is that?

It certainly is the precursor to the “Christmas gift” memories of African slaves on Southern plantations, where planters – many with roots in the British Isles – followed these old practices, with a few changes, given the circumstances.

The day after Christmas now passes for a normal day here in the United States, if by normal you mean more shopping (and gift returns. Goodness, when will Aunt Tilly ever remember that I hate the color pink? Another pink sweater this year!).

saint-stephenYet in other parts of the world, from the first days of the Roman Catholic Church and later,  December 26 took on significantly special symbolism. One of the original seven deacons in the early Church, Saint Stephen, died on December 26. A victim of stoning, or so legend has it, thus becoming the Church’s first martyr (protomartyr) for the faith. Ironically, Saint Paul (of Tarsus), permitted Saint Stephen’s death, before his own conversion. The Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas,” refers to Saint Stephen.

After the Norman Conquest in 1066, over forty-six churches were built in Stephen’s honor. During the Middle Ages, various customs became associated with this day.

In England, and other countries where the English influenced the culture profoundly, people celebrate December 26 as Boxing Day. Boxing Day began as a day of gift giving to people in service, and may also have originated in the distribution of the contents of the local parish church’s almsgiving box to the poor.

Current practice still encourages people to give to the poor and perform charitable acts on this day.

It all sound so nice and pat and convenient. And nice, as in kind. Yet, as with most current holidays, mostly Christian, the real story delves into a nebulous past much further back.

Darraugh Sherwin
Photo credit: Darraugh Sherwin

In Ireland an ancient ritualistic practice called Wren’s Day traditionally took place on December 26. Young boys flitted from door to door, begging money for a “dead wren” they carry on a stick, supposedly stoned to death. Today, the wren is not real, but the joviality is. This mummer-like tradition really represents a remnant of ancient Druidic wren sacrifices to honor the winter solstice. As they went, they sang:

“I have a little box under me arm,
Under me arm, under me arm,
I have a little box under me arm,
And a Penny or Tuppence’d do it no harm.”


“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Up with the penny and down with the pan,
Give us a penny to bury the wren.”

Food plays an interesting role in the various celebrations surrounding Saint Stephen’s Day.

In Poland, people throw oats at the priests and walnuts at each other – things supposedly symbolic of the stoning, but in reality these practices occurred in very ancients times as fertility rituals. And in Sweden there’s talk of “wild hunt,” called “Staffan’s Race.” This old custom  took place on St. Stephen’s Day and also called up fertility mythology and lots of alcohol.

Neal Foley
Photo credit: Neal Foley

As recently as the early nineteenth century, in Ireland at least, the preparations for Christmas still included the slaughter of animals, chiefly pigs and cows, in anticipation of December 25. The gentry received the choicest cuts (and those form the basis of many of the nostalgic recipes we cook, recipes that made their way into period cookbooks). For the peasantry and common people, the division of meat among village dwellers tells another story:

The head, tongue and feet: the blacksmith
The small ribs attached to the hindquarters: the tailor
The kidneys: the doctor
The udder: the harper
The liver: carpenter
The marrowbone: the odd-job man
The heart: the cowherd
A choice piece each: the midwife and the stableman
Black puddings and sausages: the ploughman.

Several recipes attest to the historical importance of food in this saint’s festivities, including St. Stephen’s Pudding (similar to plum pudding), Stephen’s Beigli (Hungarian bread roll with either walnut or poppyseed filling), and Podkovy (St. Stephen’s Horseshoes). Ernst Schuegraf includes recipes for all of these dishes in his Cooking with the Saints: An Illustrated Treasury of Authentic Recipes Old and Modern.


Darina Allen, in her charming little book, The Festive Foods of Ireland, includes a recipe for St. Stephen’s Day Stew. Obviously not an ancient recipe with Druidic roots (turkey? No way until after 1492), nonetheless the stew stimulates the salivary glands. Keep your stew warm in a haybox, as she suggests – hayboxes were containers used to carry hay for the animals. Packed around the hot pot, the hay keeps the stew warm. A great idea for keeping run-of-the-mill casseroles warm, too, come to think of it.

St. Stephen’s Day Stew
Serves 10-12

2 lb cold turkey meat
1 lb cold ham or bacon
1/4 stick butter
12 oz chopped onions
8 oz flat mushrooms (or button)
4 cups well-flavored turkey stock or 2 3/4 cups stock and 1/2 pint turkey gravy
3/4 cup cream
2 T. chopped flatleaf parsley
2 t. fresh marjoram or tarragon
2 T. chopped chives
Roux (4 T. flour and ½ cup water mixed together; be sure to get out any lumps)
12 hot cooked potatoes
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Cut the turkey and ham into 1 inch pieces.

Melt the butter in a wide heavy saucepan, add the chopped onions, cover and sweat for about 10 minutes until they are soft but not coloured. Remove to a large plate.

Meanwhile wash and slice the mushrooms. Cook over a brisk heat, a few at a time. Season with salt and pepper and add to the onions.

Toss the turkey and ham in the hot saucepan, using a little extra butter if necessary; add to the mushrooms and onion.

Deglaze the saucepan with the turkey stock, add the cream and chopped herbs. Bring to the boil, thicken with roux, add the meat, mushrooms and onions and simmer for 5 minutes. Taste and correct the seasoning.

Peel the freshly boiled potatoes and put on top of the stew.

Put the lid on the casserole, set into the haybox and cover with more hay. Serve steaming hot several hours later.

© 2008, 2015 C. Bertelsen


6 thoughts on “Boxing Day / St. Stephen’s Day and Some Ancient Truths About Social Class and Food

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s