Will you be wrapping up in a scarf, coat and woolly hat and going on a Boxing Day walk this year? Hundreds of thousands of us will be. Maybe a million. It’s a British tradition, and, if you’re really into it, there are now published routes for all parts of the nation, from the Cairngorms to Cornwall.
I’ll pretend to hate it, but I’ll be happily dragged out to go along the Thames Path, which, if it stays fine, will likely be as busy as a pedestrian motorway. Or, perhaps, this year we’ll wander around one of the London bigger parks with hundreds of other smiling families and their dogs.
That’s the thing about the Boxing Day walks – as opposed, for instance, to fighting the mob at the sales. They are happy family things. Everyone is smiling, buoyed by the spirit of Christmas. There’s no pushing and shoving, no hurrying, no irritation when children on the bikes or scooters that they got for Christmas momentarily block the way.
Before Christmas it’s rush, rush, rush as supermarkets are laid waste by worried, tired mothers on whom the vast burden of festive preparations mainly falls. But by Boxing Day, when they’ve shopped for, bought for and cooked for all the rest of us, they are as serene as swans as they lead us off on our annual trek.
Some of us will complain about the cold, of course. I always do. But secretly I’ll be enjoying myself, forsaking my mobile phone and the changing football scores for a couple of hours, for the spiritual satisfaction of knowing that I’m a link in a tradition that goes right back to the Middle Ages.
No-one knows for sure when Boxing Day, with the Boxing Day walk, began, but my bet is that the two developed out of a combination of customs.
One was for local priests to open the poor box to distribute its collection to the neediest of the parish on St Stephen’s Day – December 26. And the other was for the rich to give their servants a day off on that day, sending them home to their families with the remains of their Yuletide feasts – a sort of little Christmas box, if you like.
In other words, they gave them a rare, non-religious holiday, on which, at a time that the nation was 99 per cent rural, people would walk miles to visit relatives in different villages. Inevitably, entertainments such as horse racing developed on such days, when racegoers would tramp out into the country to get a good view of the runners and riders.
There was fox hunting, too, when the unhorsed would follow the hunt over hill and dale. Everyone was always walking on Boxing Day, not for work for once but for pure enjoyment.
We go to see relatives, watch racing or visit foxhunting meets in our cars these days. But we’ve retained the habit of walking in the countryside on this particular holiday.
This is only my theory, of course. But in such ways have ancient practicalities evolved into much-enjoyed Christmas traditions. So well done, Queen Victoria for agreeing that Boxing Day should be a bank holiday in 1871.
Normally, many of us only like to walk in the balmier months of the year, but late December has its own misty beauty, when we can wonder at the skeletons of leafless trees in the monochrome, short days of winter. And, if it’s crisp under foot and our cheeks pink with cold, there’s nothing as tempting as a country pub with a roaring fire to call in along the way. It’s amazing how a strong drink fortifies the Christmas spirit.
As a boy, growing up in Lancashire over half a century ago, the Boxing Day walk was, to be honest, more of an escape than a pleasure, a couple of hours’ away from an afternoon of cups of tea, aunts and boiled ham.
There wasn’t much else to do in those days, unless you were living in a football town, which I wasn’t. But there was always the chance that you might spot a girl you’d always fancied (from afar, naturally) who had been dragged out by her family, too.
Only when I had children of my own did I fully understand the winter joy to be had. Then my wife, Plum, would dictate that everyone must get some fresh air, and off we’d set across the New Forest, the bracken brown and crackling as we’d walk, the wild ponies doleful in their winter coats. Now, I thank the culture inherited from medieval times for bequeathing me the possibility of such happy memories.
Although most European and Latin countries celebrate St Stephen’s Day in some form or other, only the UK and the countries of the old Empire have a national holiday on December 26. It must be awful to be an American, and back at work the day after Christmas.
Just imagine, all that tinsel and glitter pre-Christmas, and all you get is a single day’s holiday, with, unlike us, no chance to recover. It hardly seems worth all the effort.
Luckily for us, our only Christmas away from home was in New Zealand, where in our shorts and T-shirts we went for the sunniest of Boxing Day walks.
Actually, it was scorching hot as we lugged our lunches and drinks from our hire car along miles of a vast, empty beach seeking the ideal place for a picnic. We still had cold turkey, of course, washed down with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, while the children and their Kiwi cousins sang Abba songs.
As we all know, and the song reminds us, memories are made of these moments. But not every Boxing Day has taken us out into the countryside or along a stretch of burning sand. Boxing Day, 1976, wasn’t like that at all.
For some reason everything went wrong for us that year. The children had all had colds, the heat in the house had broken down and we couldn’t get it mended, the fairy lights on the tree had gone off, some of the toys hadn’t come with batteries so they wouldn’t work, and somehow I’d managed to pull the curtains down in the sitting room and couldn’t get them back up again.
The last straw was when we discovered that the car battery was flat, and we couldn’t, therefore, go to the family to which we’d been invited.
‘Never mind,’ I said in desperation. ‘Let’s all go to the pictures.’ And off we set.
It didn’t help that our section of the London Underground wasn’t working as our little family made its long, glum Boxing Day walk through sleet and rainswept, gloomy London streets, but we got there.
And, then, as we sat in the darkness a kind of miracle began to happen. As King Kong tenderly picked up Jessica Lange, the children’s faces lit up, and the worst Christmas ever turned into one of the best.
It was a long way home, as we all talked non-stop about the film, but it’s a Boxing Day walk none of us has ever forgotten.