The Christmas period in my native Shropshire, like most of the counties around the United Kingdom, has always been a time for reuniting families and groups of friends. As a child we waited excitedly for grandparents to arrive; car laden with goodies. As a young man, it was a time of reunion, as friends returning from university for the holidays turned-up in the Ludlow pubs of an evening and old acquaintances could be re-kindled. We’d drink beer, participate in the inter-pub tug of-war between The Feathers and The Bull, hauling one or other team across Corve Street at mid-day, and if there was a rugby match, it was often a charity one, with burly men in fishnets and wellies on one team and the college girl’s hockey team on the other.
Large, disparate clans would gather in the family home for a few days and, if shooting was your drug of choice, there was the very strong likelihood of a Boxing Day shoot. Now, before I get into the details of the day, it is worth reflecting a moment on the inspiration for such gatherings.
Christmas is a religious festival but Britain, on the whole, is not a very religious country. That may seem strange, given that the Church of England is state-mandated, as well as sharing space with many other variants of christianity. Of course, Catholics are a large minority and there is a sprinkling of Methodists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Presbyterians and the like. In the cities you are more likely to find other religious groups, descended from more recent immigrants; Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. For most Brits, trips to church are restricted to weddings, funerals and, perhaps, Christmas. Christianity here, even for believers is not the rabid, literalist, creationist kind that is so prevalent in the States. It is more akin to a soft, cultural habit that binds communities together through ritual and tradition.
Those with children, whatever their lack of interest in the godly claims of the vicar, may well end up in church on Christmas Eve, listening to their youngest singing in the school choir, before shuffling off to the pub for a pint or two of dark beer. Many breweries prepare ‘winter specials’ of heavy, chewy ales to warm the constitution on cold nights.
Out in the rural areas, the scene is remarkably similar to that of a century ago. Villages based around a Norman church, a ‘big house’ occupied by the major landowner and a village pub, though these are closing at an alarming rate, as the drink-drive laws restrict the pub-to-pub trips that were common in my childhood. ‘Have a drink, have a drive, go out and see what you can find’ as the Mungo Jerry lyric goes. Well, not in the age of the breathalyser and instant disqualification!
But, somehow, especially if the weather plays ball, the countryside returns to the Victorian Christmas idyll of warm fires, biscuits and cheese, goblets of port and idle conversations around the detritus of present un-wrapping. Outside, the ground is dusted with a light sprinkling of snow and set-hard from a week or two of frosts. The robins gather on the bird table to feast on the left-over sprouts and goose fat and the dogs stir restlessly from over-indulging in scraps and jostle the younger kids for the best place by the fire.
By Boxing Day, everyone is feeling fat, over indulged and a tad restless from too many hours slouched on the sofa with a glass in their hand and a chocolate in their mouth. It is time to blow the cobwebs away, get some fresh air in the lungs and stomp around outside to work-up enough appetite for the traditional cold turkey and ham that makes up boxing day supper.
It is usually a bit of an armed ramble. Rather than donning best garb and expecting to stand on a peg, many use it as an excuse to gather the tribe and kit them out, according to age and inclination, with wellies, hats, sticks, guns and dogs. A good deal of sloe gin, port and ginger wine will be loaded into the back of the vehicle to keep the intervals lubricated. Many Americans recoil in horror at the idea of mixing alcohol and firearms but we are pretty good at self-regulation and if anyone over does it, they’ll be gently relieved of their shooting duties and put next to a youngster to offer advice and encouragement from the safety of their shooting-stick perch.
If you have a shoot of your own, Boxing Day is often used for pushing the boundaries; areas not normally shot on the driven days. You may split into two teams; of beaters and Guns, swapping between drives, so everyone gets some shooting, some exercise and a share in the banter. Bag size is of no consequence and the day will last as long as everyone is having fun.
For the enthusiast, Boxing Day is often the one day a year that the unusual gun makes its entry. Perhaps it is grandfather’s old hammer gun, firing black powder shells, given an annual outing to pay respects to the old man’s memory. I have one; a Purdey, made in 1867 for a long-dead great, great, great uncle. It is not in the best condition and it does not fit me as well as some of my guns but it does get taken out on Boxing Day, providing that ceremonial link with past generations at a time of year when we often take stock of where we are and where we have come from. More organised teams may even arrange a special hammer gun, muzzle-loader or black-powder shoot for Boxing Day. Above all, it is an occasion for friends and fun.
The numbers are likely to be small, the guns not our usual choice but every bird taken should be memorable. Each moment of the day a special one to be savoured for its comfortable familiarity, cherished for the moment in time it represents. We will never be quite who we are now, again. The kids will never again be this age, the old folks will never again be quite this lucid or robust, some of the dogs will be in their last season, while undisciplined puppies will later come into their prime. The relationships between us all will shift slightly, as we all age in our own way. The Boxing Day shoot is a snapshot of us today and we can pause for a moment of reflection and appreciate our time together; fleeting but sweet.
These are the memories that remain when the years have passed; we’ll recall the clatter of sticks against the frosted limbs of the rhododendrons, and the excited shouts of the pre-teens, the croaking of the old cock pheasant as he takes to the air and swings back over the line, the gleeful spring in the step of the young dog retrieving a runner from a bramble patch, pleased with himself, but a bit too proud to hand over the prize without a tiny bit of petulant ground standing first.
The trudge back to the Land Rovers in the gloom of rapidly falling light, toes chilled and a few miles of bumping back home, the scent of wet dog permeating the vehicles, to endure, before once again, entering the warm hall, kicking off the boots, hanging the frosted tweeds in the boot room and decanting guns from slips into racks, giving them a quick wipe-over before heading to the fire for a glass of port and a chance to warm the extremities before heading upstairs for a shower and to dress for dinner.
We all feel so much better for our Boxing Day shoot. Somehow, we have braved the elements, experienced some moments of joy and suffered from a bit of good-natured teasing, got the job done earned our supper. All is well with the world. Tonight may be our last one together for a year; for the next day, the call of duty re-asserts itself, the cease-fire of the Christmas period is broken and real life beckons once more. The spell is broken. Until this time next year.