Thursday, 30 December 2010

The "Box" In Boxing Day

I'm a huge fan of Christmas and love the build up – decorations, advent calendars, Christmas films (even the nonsense the Christmas Channel shows!)... The only thing I'm not a fan of is traditional Christmas food and this year finally made the much talked about alternative all-meat decorative mince pies. Of course supposedly being an adult and knowing the “Christmas secret” means Christmas morning isn't as exciting as it used to be but I still love my family's annual routine – stocking opening for all (regardless of age), church, lunch, the Queen's speech, presents and games.

This year with so many members of my family ill, for the first time ever the pressure to go to church was off and church goers seriously diminished but because it's part of a long-held tradition, I braved the service voluntarily. One year The Boy threatened to abstain and found himself locked outside and shoeless with little choice but to join the rest of the family but this year no such shenanigans occurred. These days when it comes to presents, I still love opening them and sure, I still experience the same spoilt mix of glee and disappointment but I'm generally more excited to see the reactions of those I've bought presents for.

In many ways I enjoy Boxing Day more than Christmas Day as we embark on another strange family tradition – a dress up themed evening. This year there's a Spanish theme. Bumbling around as one of Dali's melting clocks, I think back to a clueless conversation I had in Cologne about the origins of the name “Boxing Day” and Germany's much simpler title: “Second Christmas Day”. I remember having to do various Christmas projects at school and rather obviously vaguely recall the name having something to do with presents.

Celebrated in Australia, Canada (an optional holiday, except for Ontario where it's statutory), New Zealand and other commonwealth nations, Boxing Day is also known as “Day of Goodwill” (South Africa) and “St Stephen's Day”/”The Day of Wren” (Ireland). Originally established through the 1871 Bank Holidays Act during Queen Victoria's reign, although dating back to medieval times, the exact etymology of the name “Boxing Day” is unclear. There are several linked and competing theories all sounding just as plausible:

  1. The tradition of giving money and other gifts to those who were needy on the day after Christmas. Gifts were placed into boxes for easier transportation.

  1. The European tradition dating back to the Middle Ages and possibly even the late Roman/early Christian era of placing metal boxes outside churches that were used to collect special offerings tied to the Feast of Saint Stephen. St. Stephen was one of the seven original deacons of the Christian Church who were ordained by the Apostles to care for widows and the poor. As told in the Acts of the Apostles 6:1 to 8:2 , in exchange for his dedicated preaching and devotion to Christ, St. Stephen was stoned to death by a mob and as he died begged God not to punish his killers. Some folk believe that there's a Swedish St Stephen, who is the patron saint of horses and thereby associates Boxing Day with outdoor sports, especially horse racing and hunting.

  1. The 19th Century Victorian custom that saw servants in Britain carry boxes to their masters when they arrived for the day's work. On the day after Christmas, it was tradition that all employers would put coins in the boxes, as a special end-of-the-year gift. Some records show these boxes were earthenware and would be collected to be smashed open on Boxing Day. Linked to this tradition is the idea that on Boxing Day tradesmen would collect their "Christmas boxes" or gifts in return for good and reliable service throughout the year – rather like the modern concept of a “Christmas Bonus”. Equally in America where Boxing Day isn't celebrated, slaves were given goods from masters to show their appreciation and sometimes allowed a few days off to spend with their family.

  1. The old English tradition that allowed servants to take the 26th December off to visit families in exchange for ensuring that wealthy landowners' Christmases ran smoothly. In addition, employers gave each servant a box containing gifts and bonuses (sometimes including leftover food). The goods were distributed based on the family's needs, the status of the worker and their services to the giver, with spun cloth, leather goods, durable food supplies, tools, and other items being handed out. The items were chucked into boxes, one box for each family, to make carrying away the results of this annual restocking easier.

  1. The tradition prevalent in the 1800s of churches opening their alms boxes (boxes where people place monetary donations) to distribute the contents to the poor.

Whichever explanation you decide to go with what's important to remember is Boxing Day was traditionally a day to thank the community for the year's efforts and while being a gracious day, also reinforced class lines as social superiors did not receive gifts from those deemed to be of inferior social standing.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Old Friends Take On New Significance

The journey from Leeds to London and back should be a familiar path for me by now but in a coach departing after 6pm it's pretty difficult to see road signs. In addition, I have an unfortunate habit of accidentally sitting on the right of the coach so that I am too far away from the side of the road. Normally I am generally only interested in my exact whereabouts on the journey up from London to Leeds when this information would be useful for The Boy in order to meet me at the right time or for me to gauge whether I am going to arrive on time. Sadly the only trusty landmark I can rely on to help me estimate my arrival time is good old well-lit up Meadowhall.

This week, for the first time in a long while I undertook this route by car. Setting out in the afternoon for our annual journey to Kent for the family Christmas, meant we were travelling in daylight. Being much more lit-up with the vastly-improved visibility of a front car seat also meant that I was actually able to read road signs and in doing so, was reminded of a few place names that I have frequently passed and often wondered what their “Unique Selling Point” is.

To satisfy my own curiosity and for the benefit of others who regularly take on this mammoth drive or who at least regularly pass segments of this route, it seemed fitting to find out just what there is to do, other than visit churches, in some of these repeat offenders, old friends and intriguingly named destinations...

Grantham – I have always wondered if there's anything there, having passed through it many times in a train and coach. In this historic market town there's actually a surprising number of things to do and see: the Grantham & Queen's Royal Lancers Museum, historic home Belton House, Easton Walled Gardens, Belvoir Castle and Woolsthorpe Manor. For those less into historic Britain who fancy a break in their journey, why not check out Ancaster Karting, Quads and Paintball or go tenpin bowling. Personally my favourite, and I think the most appealing, Grantham fact is that it was recently awarded the title of “Home Of The World's Hottest Chilli 2010”.

Newark – Like Grantham, this is merely another train/coach curiosity. Having rolled on through Newark many a time, I can't help but guess what local folk get up to to pass their time and The Boy hopes there's a welcome sign pointing out its name is an anagram of “wanker”. A quick google search and there's surprisingly no such information about Newark's name but like Grantham it's a historic market town with a fair bit to see: castle ruins and gardens, Newark Air/Millgate Museums, a tour-able Georgian town hall and river Trent walks. For those into their antiquities, it might be interesting to know Newark is home to six huge annual antiques fairs held at Newark County Showroom. I'm most amused by the overly specific Newark walking trails advertised: a Civil War trail, a Medieval timber framed buildings trail, a malting and brewing trail...

Godmanchester – We both imagine Godmanchester to be a smaller version of its great northern counterpart solely comprised of churches. Oddly, instead of a church, the first tourist attraction I find listed for the Roman town of Godmanchester is a stroll over its Chinese footbridge. Although a good base for a whole array of nearby attractions, Godmanchester's only other draw is booking on a family run tour around the privately owned Georgian country house, Island Hall. Despite it's scant attractions, Godmanchester clearly has an I.T. savvy proud resident:

The Alconburys - This one is signposted near to the following curiously-named place and sounds like it's the manor house that accompanies the paupers estate, The Stukeleys: an abominable place of no escape from social rank. Both built on the old Roman road of Ermine Street, unsurprisingly The Alconburys and The Stukeleys villages, offer little to entertain passers by but a church and former RAF airfield. If you're ever stuck in the area you can at least take comfort in knowing that “ Great Stukeley village” actually has a hotel and there's also a website dedicated to village life:

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Sod and Murphy Conspire Against Me

It's been a while since I've taken you on a linguistic journey – you can blame my latest foray with National Express for this outing. I'm sitting on the coach with the inconsiderate “background” sounds of some TV show someone several seats in front is watching on their laptop. I'm actually pretty glad to be on this coach and amused that despite its reputation Megabus feels much more luxurious than National Express in that the individual spotlights overhead are actually WORKING! I'm also pretty lucky to be on a virtually empty coach with seats all around me free. So what's the problem you say? And why mention National Express when you're travelling with Megabus?

My day didn't begin well. My two morning cautionary alarms went off and shortly afterwards I got a phone call from the agency. I had work for the fourth day running – almost unheard of! For the second day I'd be travelling to an extremely far-flung suburb of outer “London”. Having travelled for two hours and passed nearing 25 tube stops to get to Upminster (technically Essex) the day before, today I'd have to get an overland train out of Liverpool Street to Chingford. Where Chingford is exactly I'll never know. Having hauled myself out of bed, I pretty much sleep-walked into the shower. Unable to brave the shock of turning on the lights, I showered and got ready in darkness. Just as I'm about to leave, I get a phone call to say the booking is cancelled and they'll see if they can get me something else. Several hours pass lying in bed fully attired in work clothes before I am ready to accept defeat.

One of those non-existent days passes and low and behold the second irritation for the day strikes... that old devil called “Sod's Law”. I leave the house giving myself plenty of time to get to Victoria Coach Station and all is going well until the Victoria Line segment of my journey that is. At every stop we seem to need to wait for a signal to enter the station and as the minutes pass I'm no longer able to comfortably read my copy of Stylist. Rather like that old pointless habit of pressing the traffic light button repeatedly, I always seem to think when panic strikes I'm better off waiting at the ready so I can leap into action as if this strategy is actually going to fix the delay. The Stylist is tucked back into my laptop bag and my coat sleeve is slightly rolled up to allow easy watch face access. Two stops out of five and a second disaster is announced – there's a broken down train in front between Warren Street and Green Park. I'm well used to delays on the somewhat unreliable Victoria Line but thankfully they normally don't occur at such a crucial time.

I finally arrive into Victoria Train Station with a mere five minutes before my coach leaves to attempt a walk that normally takes ten minutes. I'm characteristically heavily laden and trying to run through the underground. Typically Victoria Train Station has closed off the normal exit so I have longer to go and my trousers have decided to try and embarrass me but all four sets of traffic lights are in my favour. I make it into the coach station bang on six, extremely red faced and drenched. Coaches to the north are unfortunately the furthest departure points so I pant on through dragging my case behind. Last week when I got the coach from London to Leeds I arrived in plenty of time and the coach was delayed departing by two hours. Today seats near the departure gate are disturbingly empty, the computer screen message board is blank and those passengers waiting around have no idea if the 561 has gone. I desperately ask a near by policemen if he's seen it and he usefully rather obviously tells me that he doesn't work for National Express.

My fate is now left in the hands of the lady at the ticket desk. I'm hoping my pitiful appearance might help my case but she goes by the book and I have to buy a new ticket for a coach leaving an hour later. Typically after already waiting an hour, my Megabus coach is delayed by 45 minutes due to “adverse weather conditions” on the M1 – clearly conditions that didn't affect the 6pm National Express Coach. The phrase “Sod's Law” comes to mind again and I wonder where it comes from.

As I am a bit of a language geek when I finally arrive in Leeds, I whip out one of my many dictionaries and the one of most use turns out to be my dictionary of modern slang which tells me that “Sod's Law” is “the supposed tendency for things to go wrong in a perverse or annoying way”. Attributed to Murphy's Law back in the 70s, it seems the phrase has a whole other name and actually isn't that old but and's_law vaguely suggest it's etymology dates back further. So there you go, no clear answer but certainly a phrase who's dictionary definition aptly matches my unfortunate day.

Friday, 3 December 2010

I'm Dreaming Of A Green Christmas

I am slightly ashamed to confess that as a child I was a complete wuss and suffered from an extreme aversion to dirt. I recall several occasions when my sister and cousins waded through streams, had snow ball fights or generally rolled around in the mud while I stood at the side watching, protectively clutching my padded fluorescent hair-band to my head.

At some point over the years I became less squeamish almost over night and started annually going to two music festivals and contending with portaloos without any of the old fuss. Despite miraculous advancements in my stance on dirt, one old hatred has only grown as I have. I don’t understand and will possibly never comprehend the excitement that comes with snow. As a child I remember being all wrapped up, verging on tears and almost having to be forced to go and play in the great white outdoors. I recall enjoying sleigh rides in the fields near to my Nan's house but just like today I wasn't so keen on the uphill walk afterwards.

As an adult I have to admit that snow certainly helps make everything look much more attractive but as soon as it starts to thaw, snow has quite the reverse affect. Rather than helping me feel more festive, snow encourages seasonal tourettes. I am such a clumsy accident prone person already that the very presence of snow puts the fear in me and I start to imagine my demise. Heading out in snowy conditions is never good but is at least safer when the snow is deep. Walking from the flat into Leeds the other day was a severely dangerous task – not a central city road, the route glistened with thick layers of ice daring me to take it on. Attempting to carefully cross at the central reservation, I couldn't help but fear the worst. My walk time doubled as I precariously slid around occasionally having to grab onto a rather filthy railing to avoid the worst as passing drivers most probably giggled at the spectacle.

The arrival of this year's second major freeze was perfectly timed to almost ruin my holiday plans as it decided the day I was flying to Cologne was a good time to settle. Thankfully East Midlands Airport wasn't too badly hit and we took off on time but arriving into Cologne we were back to havoc wreaked by snow - left waiting on the plane for an hour for some extremely icy steps to arrive. Departing Cologne three days later snow delayed us by an hour and a half and on arrival we faced a frosty car and no de-icer – thank god (or whoever there is) for the hard edges of empty savoury egg containers.

Having been relatively unaffected by the snow once in Cologne, returning to the UK I was advised to avoid my Leeds-Kent journey because of train cancellations – apparently whole train routes had been suspended for days due to “adverse weather conditions”. Southeastern trains cover an enormous commuter route and I honestly couldn’t quite believe the snow had completely halted any kind of service. Ringing up the “weather hotline”, I was repeatedly transferred to the automated service (love those things) and usefully told the journey was “amended” before the message cut out. A lucky friend actually managed to get hold of an operator to ask about the situation but the employee clearly hadn’t been briefed in any way and was equally useful, admitting they had no idea if trains were even running at all.

Deciding to take a chance I stubbornly risked letting National Express take charge of my fate and actually made it to London, merely half an hour delayed. Luckily Southeastern trains were operating a limited timetable again and I made it home safely after about seven and a half hours travelling time. One hurdle overcome now just about five to go!

As I am still a bit of a hobo I have two more weekends and a journey back Kentways before Christmas to haul myself up and down the country AND then after all of that... I need to get to Chester and from there back up to Leeds. Daily newspaper snow forecast updates do little to ease the depression. We’re threatened with the coldest winter in 30 years; warned those planning on travelling cross-country might have to completely postpone Christmas and celebrate the week after; told snow on Christmas Day is a “foregone conclusion” and even reassured by comforting bosses at Southeastern that trains running in snow “will always be a problem”. Is the arrival of this extremely cold wet occasionally dangerous and debilitating white fluff really worth celebrating?