Thursday, December 27, 2012

What is Boxing Day?

As an American, I have no idea what Boxing Day is, except that it is on December 26th. (I asked an American friend who happens to live in England about Boxing Day. She referred to it as "Hangover Day." And it could be that now and then, too).

Since Boxing Day has been a national holiday in Britain, Ireland and Canada since 1871, how did it come to exist? There seems to be a few histories as to how Boxing Day began and what its purpose was:

1. Alms Giving
During Advent, Anglican parishes displayed a box for churchgoers to fill with monetary donations. The boxes were broken open the day after Christmas to distribute to the poor. 

2. Gift Giving
Since servants of the aristocracy were required to work for their employers on Christmas Day, they were given the following day off from work to visit their families. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts and bonuses, and sometimes leftover food.

3. Tip Giving
It was also customary for tradesman to receive money or presents, "Christmas boxes," on the day after Christmas as gratitude for good service throughout the year. Samuel Pepys' diary entry for December 19, 1663 mentions making an errand to the shoemakers to pay a bill and give to "the boys' box against Christmas."
Saturday 19 December 1663
Up and to the office, where we sat all the morning, and I laboured hard at Deering’s business of his deals more than I would if I did not think to get something, though I do really believe that I did what is to the King’sadvantage in it, and yet, God knows, the expectation of profit will have its force and make a man the more earnest. Dined at home, and then with Mr. Bland to another meeting upon his arbitration, and seeing we were likely to do no good I even put them upon it, and they chose Sir W. Rider alone to end the matter, and so I am rid of it. Thence by coach to my shoemaker’s and paid all there, and gave something to the boys’ box against Christmas. To Mrs. Turner’s, whom I find busy with Sir W. Turner, about advising upon going down to Norfolke with the corps, and I find him in talke a sober, considering man. So home to my office late, and then home to supper and to bed. My head full of business, but pretty good content.

When looking at the calendar, December 26th will no longer be a mystery to me.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Christmas, Victorian Style

Like many things from the Victorian Era, we have inherited celebrating Christmas the way we do: as a day with family and friends, surrounded by green decorations and a tree, exchanging presents. Prior to the nineteenth-century, Christmas was hardly celebrated. Yet by the end of the century, Christmas was fully installed as the family-oriented tradition we have today.

And it began with Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. Her marriage to Prince Albert brought German traditions to Britain, such as the decorated Christmas tree, which was a tradition reminiscent of Prince Albert's childhood in Germany.

Shortly after this image was published in the Illustrated London News, Britains began decorated a tree, decorated with candles, fruit, and ornaments.

Decorating homes for the Christmas holiday became an elaborate affair during the Victorian era. Using evergreens, a medieval tradition, continued still but the way decorations were styled and placed became more uniformed, orderly, and elegant. Instructions were provided for elaborate decorations in lady's magazines, such as this entry in Cassell's Family Magazine for cultivating evergreens.

The Victorian magazine The Designer, published an article regarding holiday decorations that advises "a few simple floral decorations carefully and harmoniously carried out will assuredly add to the pleasures of the day." And of course, evergreens are a focus:
If one has an abundance of greens, such as Holly, Mistletoe, Laurel or anything else that is evergreen, the decoration of archways, the mantel, or even of corners between the windows and doors may be appropriately carried out but only when there is an abundance of material.

So as you decorate your tree and home this season, give small thanks to the Victorians who imbued the holiday with the practices we have today for celebrating the season.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Reading History Without Judgement

I am currently reading Hilary Mantle's phenomenal Wolf Hall (a must read for Tudorphiles and Anglopihles alike.)  In an interview with The Guardian, Mantel sets out how she approached writing a historical novel about Thomas Cromwell and 16th-century Tudor England:
Her aim was to place the reader in "that time and that place, putting you into Henry's entourage. The essence of the thing is not to judge with hindsight, not to pass judgment from the lofty perch of the 21st century when we know what happened. It's to be there with them in that hunting party at Wolf Hall, moving forward with imperfect information and perhaps wrong expectations, but in any case moving forward into a future that is not predetermined, but where chance and hazard will play a terrific role."
Not only am I enjoying Wolf Hall, because of the plot, characters, and especially Mantel's writing, but also because I fundamentally believe in her approach to studying and writing about historical events and people. It is common, frequent, and easy to attribute emotions to historical figures and imagine what they would have felt in a given moment. And yet, Mantel steers from this introspective method to one of observation.

Mantel separates the study of the past from the assumptions of the present day. She reveals the Tudor world unencumbered by our omniscient knowledge of what will occur.
Despite the inevitability of Cromwell's death, however, [Mantel] said that "in every scene, even the quiet ones, I try to create turning points, multiple turning points. So the reader knows how it's going to turn out, but the reader's expectation of how and why is constantly challenged."
The discovery of truth in the study of a person, place, or time can only be done without the clouded visions and thoughts of today. To approach history without the veil of modern knowledge and judgement is difficult, but doing so honors the subject matter.

Friday, July 27, 2012


With the Olympic Opening Ceremony well under way in London (and soon to start on this side of the pond), why not a post on the British national identity?

This paragraph from an article in the the BBC News Magazine summarizes the complexity of the British national identity:

The English are British and lots of people think the British are English but that annoys the Scottish andWelsh because although some think they're British and some think they aren't and some think they are but don't want to be, they all agree that they definitely are not English. The Irish mostly think they are Irish, apart from the ones who are Northern Irish. Some say that makes them British and Irish. But others disagree and say they should just be Irish and then some say they aren't British either but part of the United Kingdom. People from England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland can all play cricket for England because they're British as can those from Ireland even though they aren't British. So can South Africans. The English play football for England unless they aren't that good when they might try to play for Ireland. Those from the Isle of Wight are English, from Anglesey are Welsh and the Orkneys are Scottish, but although that means they aren't from the island of Great Britain they're still British. The Channel Islanders depend on the crown which is what the Queen wears but they aren't in the UK and those from the Isle of Man are the same, apart from their cats.
Actually, the entire article shines on various aspects of Britishness: accents, class, pubs, newspapers (and their puns), queuing, and self-deprecation - "an inescapable part of British discourse."

'Tis quite brilliant, actually.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Winston Churchill‬ and His Words of Power

July 4th, the day on which in 1776 America declared Independence from Great Britain with the Declaration of Independence. It is a national holiday that Americans revel in having the day off from work and also contemplate American history, at least for a second.

Being the Anglophile that I am, I spent America's Independence Day with that great Briton, Winston Churchill.

The Morgan Library and Museum 's "Churchill: The Power of Words" exhibit examines Churchill's language throughout his life. From his childhood through his days as a war correspondant in the Boer War, as a politician, the Prime Minister, and in retirement, words were Churchill's weapon of choice that he welded deftly.

The highlight of the Morgan's exhibit is an auditory series of excerpts from Churchill's famous and most influential speeches. Listening to Churchill deliver his famous speeches conveys more power than simply reading his words every could.

"Their finest hour"

This speech was delivered to the House of Commons on June 18, 1940 a month after he became Prime Minister.

"Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat"

This speech was delivered on May 13, 1940 also to the House of Commons.

Fun facts that I learned about Churchill:
  • Churchill's mother was born in Brooklyn in Cobble Hill.
  • Churchill first visited the United States in 1895.
  • Churchill was a one of the highest paid and best known war correspondents during the Boer War.
  • Churchill not only developed a strong political alliance with the United States during the Second World War, but also a close friendship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. 
  • Churchill was granted an Honorary Citizen of the United States by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. 
  • In addition to his love of writing, Churchill was also a painter, specializing in Impressionist landscape pieces.

Winston Churchill is not a historical figure that I have examined in depth on my own, but after this exhibit, I surely will give him the courtesy and time he so rightly deserves. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Queen's Speech

Today, May 9, 2012, Queen Elizabeth II opened Parliament.

The State Opening of Parliament is the ceremonial and official beginning of the parliamentary session, occurring on the first day of a new parliament session or shortly after a general election. The last State Opening took place on May 25, 2010, making the last session of parliament was the longest in 100 years. The State Opening is a symbolic reminder of the relationship between the monarchy and government.

In addition to formally opening Parliament, the Queen delivers a speech. Generally, this speech reviews the previous session and provide an outline for proposed legislation for the coming session. The Queen delivers her Speech from the Throne in the House of Lords with members of both Houses present. Following the Speech, both Houses began debating the speech, which culminates in a vote by the House of Commons. The House of Lords does not vote.

Queen's Speech 2012 at-a-glance: Bill-by-bill


The State Opening of Parliament is a ceremony loaded with historical ritual and symbolic significance for the governance. It is a rare occasion when all three branches of the government convene at the same time. 

Traditions surrounding the State Opening and delivery of a speech by the monarch can be traced back at least to the 16th century. To this day, an official search of the cellars occurs prior to the State Opening as a reminder (but also as a precaution!) of the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot. For pictures of the extracted pages from the Lord Great Chamberlain’s Minute Book, Queen Victoria’s throne, and tickets to the State Opening for George IV see this page from Parliament's Archives.  

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Celebrating Shakespeare

The end of April is the near-birth date of the great English poet and playwright, William Shakespeare. He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon and baptized there on 26 April 1564. His actual birthdate remains unknown, but is traditionally observed on April 23rd.

Let us appreciate his birth through his great works. I present a few of my favorite passages from his plays and his sonnets. I’m a particular fan of the Dark Lady Sonnets: 
In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But 'tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who, in despite of view, is pleased to dote.
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue's tune delighted;
Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone:
But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man,
Thy proud heart's slave and vassal wretch to be:
Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
That she that makes me sin awards me pain.
 And with two scenes from two of my favorite plays:

Patrick Stewart as Macbeth:


And Puck’s final soliloquy from A Midsummer Night's Dream:

A very happy birthday to William.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Rediscovering Britons: Demonstration of an Identity

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've had reason of late to revisit events of British History. At a friend's request, I compiled an overview of British history from the Norman Invasion of 1066 to present day. This meant uncovering many aspects of British History and to do so I turned to an easy and comprehensive internet source: the BBC British History website. In stumbling around the BBC British History site for information, I came across an article about the Syon Cope. As a very amateur scholar of art history, I was immediately intrigued. What was this beautiful work of art? What did it mean for those who created it and who it was created for?

The Syon Cope and detail

Copes, a semi-circular cape, are outer garments worn by priests for the celebration of Mass. The Syon Cope was kept by nuns in the sixteenth century in the Syon Abbey in Middlesex, which was founded by King Henry V around 1414, and thus giving this Cope its name. The Syon Cope has embroidered on it scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary, with figures of the apostles. It is worked in silk, silver-gilt and silver thread, which entirely covers the linen background material. The figures are framed in overlapping units, based on the quatrefoil (a form with four lobes), which was a popular design in English architecture in the reigns of Edward I and his son Edward II.

The Syon Cope was acquired by the V&A. For additional details on the imagery in the Syon Cope, visit their site where you can find a comrphensive description and history of the Syon Cope.

The Syon Cope is an elaborate and elegant example of English embroidery, called Opus Anglicanum ('English work'). The English became famous for this particular kind of needlework that was done for ecclesiastical or secular use on clothing, hangings or other textiles, often using gold and silver threads on rich velvet or linen grounds.

As with any work of art, Opus Anglicanum represents many aspects of English history, from Church pomp and pageantry to the status of artists and the importance of culture. It also came to represent the English in the form of an artistic rendering of Englishness.  

Such English embroidery was in great demand across Europe, particularly from the late twelfth to the mid-fourteenth centuries and was a luxury product often used for diplomatic gifts. Princes and potentates of Church and State wanted English embroidery. Diplomatic gifts of ecclesiastical embroidery by an English king emphasize its significance as a representation of high, and specifically English, achievement. 


"The Nations of Britain: England - The Syon Cope",  Linda Wooley, BBC History website

"The Syon Cope", V&A website

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Rediscovering the Britons: Henry II

I've had reason of late to revisit chronological events of British history. At a friend's request, I compiled an overview of British history from the Norman Invasion of 1066 to present day. This resulted in uncovering many aspects of British history that I haven't studied since my undergraduate coursework in college. It has been a fun project to rediscover people and events that I had either not known that much about or had forgotten.
So why not start at the beginning with what could be argued by some as the beginning of the English state under Henry II, who ruled 1154 to 1189.
From Anglo-Saxon England came a tradition of law-making which focused on the king as the protector of the realm. Henry ruled over a vassalage system with the king as an active and central figure of this political system. At that time that Henry ruled England (and Ireland and Scotland and Wales and Brittany and Normandy and Anjou), he viewed himself more than just by his title as King of England (and Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou), but rather as Lord of His Domain. Understanding Henry’s approach to ruling his lands elucidates his actions that lead to the reforms that changed the relationship of the King to the Church, State, and society.
Henry’s reign was not necessarily greater than that of the his Anglo-Saxon or Norman predecessors. However, these reforms under his reign brought changes to land law and judiciary practices that were vital to the creation English Common Law and toward creating an English monarchy and unified state.
For more details on Henry II's reforms, I recommend starting with this website: