For the past few years, my brother Charlie, fellow Charles Marlow team member Tim Stacey and I have taken part in the Cookham Dean Boxing Day Games held in the ancient English village next to where we grew up.
Boxing Day, which falls on the 26th of December, is a tradition peculiar to the UK and our former colonies.
As there are usually so many sporting events on that day, including the legendary Cookham Dean Boxing Day Games, many people assume that the word ‘Boxing’ refers to the sport by that name.
It actually refers to the practice of the less fortunate among us helping those who are not so better off by donating or giving money to them in a box.
One theory is that the name comes from the Middle Ages, when alms boxes were placed in churches and the contents donated to the needy on the Feast of Saint Stephen. This falls on the same day as Boxing Day.
By the mid-19th century, the Oxford English Dictionary was referring to a “Christmas Box”, a present or money given to “postmen, errand boys and servants of various kinds”.
The explanation I prefer is that Boxing Day refers to the “Christmas Box” of money, gifts or leftover food given to tradesmen who served the wealthy all year. On that day, servants were allowed the day after Christmas to visit their families.
But it also makes sense to me that, as servants were given the day off, they played or watched sports that may well have included boxing.
Whatever the etymology of Boxing Day, it’s an important day in the Hill family sporting calendar.
Every year dating back to around 1980, locals have gathered on Cookham Dean green next to the Jolly Farmer pub to compete in a series of challenges for the highly coveted prize – a wooden toilet seat.
Events vary each year but have included the egg throw (who can throw and catch one the furthest – disqualification for pre-boiled eggs), dizzy relay (spinning around a wooden pole multiple times before attempting to run back to your team, to tag the next person to do the same), and three blind mice (a blindfolded dash through hay bales).
The final event is always the obstacle race when eight players from each team run in relay fashion:
UNDER the rope
OVER the hay bales
THROUGH the hula hoop
UNDER the cargo net
INTO the tangerine pit (to bob for a tangerine fruit – no hands!)
After you’ve put a tangerine in your bucket, you sprint back and hand the baton to a teammate.
There’s also a tug-o-war competition that runs alongside the other games with a separate prize of a wooden toilet lid.
To my knowledge, no-one has ever won the toilet seat and lid in the same year. That would require brawn and brains to win the tug-o-war plus the speed and agility necessary for other events.
But if trends in Premier League football are anything to go by, it probably won’t be long before wealthy oil magnates come scouting Cookham Dean village, searching for talented all-rounders.
The local Kaffirs Scouts Group organises and meticulously referees the games. All proceeds from entry fees and the mulled wine sold to literally hundreds of spectators go back to the Scouts.
Each team receives points depending on where it finishes in the event. Scores are tallied up after the obstacle race and the winners awarded the toilet seat and lid. After this, winners, losers and spectators head to the Jolly Farmer.
I have to say that the games are certainly the highlight of my Christmas and may well be the part of the year I look forward to the most.
The games have a special place in our family as my cousins were competing way before I was a fertilised egg, let alone old enough to throw or catch one.
My cousins first competed roughly 35 years ago. Charlie and I joined the team around 1996. Our family has returned to the pub with the toilet seat on around 18/19 occasions.
You’d think by now we’re a well-oiled ship, but each year follows a predictable path of last-minute panic.
Christmas lunch conversations are dominated by us scrambling to get a minimum of eight people together, including at least two of each sex as per the rules. Under the table, we’re desperately firing out messages on our phones to friends who may be in the area to beg them to join the team.
With the complications of babies and extended family commitments, this becomes increasingly difficult as we get older.
Tim Stacey became part of the team as he’s an old school friend of mine.
This year will be especially poignant for me as I’ve realised that, approaching 40, the time when I bow out is coming. On that day, I will present the baton for the first leg of the obstacle race – handed down through our family like a heirloom – to my cousin’s eldest son, waiting in the wings.
I can’t decide whether this will be the year. Or if, like so many great sportsmen throughout history, I’ll shoot for one last glorious victory.
We won’t know until around 11.45am on 26th December this year, when the Kaffirs hustle the teams onto the start line.
Written by Charles Marlow co-founder Patrick Mullin-Hill