Northern pike, even duck-gobbling, tackle-smashing pike in the category of the Green Devil, 50 pounds and more of him as we devoutly believed, do not respond to such inspired callings-up from the deep as Lindy invoked. But he continued, swaying dangerously, holding his pint pot on high. "Green Devil," he intoned. "Coming to get you! Coming to get you Boxing Day!"
One thing was certain. Boxing Day was the earliest moment when Lindy could imperil the Green Devil. For the next 24 hours or so he was in no danger whatever, because Christmas Day loomed. Whatever uncondoned foolishness we might get into on Christmas Eve, not one of us would be able to escape the bosom-of-the-family ritual of Christmas Day, beginning with the pre-breakfast assault of the carol party from the Methodist chapel belting out "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night," ringing the front doorbell and wanting money. Then the present-opening, a nice ginger-colored tweed jacket, maybe—how suitable—and the stultifying, gargantuan dinner in the middle of the day. Then the afternoon and evening of visits to, visits from, unspeakable aunts, decaying uncles, the tiny glasses of sherry or port offered along with the daunting plate-loads of mince pies and Christmas cake.
Yes, but if you could live through all that, what lay ahead was Boxing Day, good old Boxing Day.
The odd name has nothing to do with pugilism. Boxing Day was, in the old days, a time to hand out Christmas presents—or "boxes." It also has a lot to do with sport in general: it is traditionally an outdoors day, the one on which you brushed away the post-Christmas cobwebs. The brutal common ancestor of soccer, rugby and football would often be played then, a bloody affair with the "goals" two neighboring villages. Any number could play and there were no rules, though plenty of broken limbs.
Many important soccer games are still held in the cities in England on Boxing Day, and in the country you still can see the Fox Hunt meet and follow it on horseback or on foot. The day is a public holiday, of course. If it falls on a Sunday, you get Monday off.
The only Boxing Days I failed to enjoy were some early ones, between the time I was nine, maybe, and until I was 14 or so, roughly the time span between knowing what you could do and being allowed to do it. In this period, Boxing Day was a kind of extra Sunday and you didn't even get to go to the rugby game because the crowd would be too big. By Boxing Day the wheels would have come off a fair percentage of your Christmas stuff, and the stores were closed so you couldn't use the gift certificates or spend the money the lazier aunts had sent.
The worst Boxing Day was when I was 11 or 12, the year I got the chemistry set, a fine one with test tubes and rack on rack of colored crystals and salts. Also a Bunsen burner with a red rubber tube for fixing to the gas outlet.
We had no gas outlet.
You could use a spirit burner, the book said. I had nothing like that, but aunt money could be used to get one. Only this was a year when Christmas Day fell on a Saturday. No hardware store would be open until the Tuesday. It was one of the lowest blows I can remember. Happily, a couple of years later I had discovered the northern pike and its abiding connection with Christmastime.
That was the Christmas that my grandfather, who had taken me fishing with him once in a while but was now bedridden, gave me the Phantom Minnow, a 2¾" Blue and Silver, as the catalogue said succinctly. He gave me more than that, in fact. There was also an Alcock-Stanley, one of the first-ever spinning reels, which he had loaded with silk line. I already had a rod—a cut-down, green-heart fly rod. On Boxing Day I took the whole outfit up to the canal.