What exactly do Brits get up to on Boxing Day — the day after Christmas? Apart from sheer regret, what is the sentiment of this day post repast?
It isn’t one of pugilistic sport amongst warring family members with hangovers, as some would like to believe. Neither is it the first business day after Christmas when everyone boxes up their unwanted gifts and returns them to stores for exchanges or refunds. No, far from being a symbol of animosity or commercial pragmatism, Boxing Day, dating back to England in the Middle Ages, is historically a day of charity and giving to those less fortunate than ourselves. But although historians agree on its charitable nature, even with its array of legends and traditions, the etymology of the day’s curious name is unclear.
Some argue that Boxing Day is so named because as servants prepared to leave to visit their families on the morning after Christmas — commonly a day off for those in service — their employers would present them with “Christmas boxes” containing gifts. In a variation on that idea, servants were thought to take wooden boxes to work on the day after Christmas for the folks ‘upstairs’ to fill with money or food in return for the faithful service they had received throughout the year. Another theory is that alms boxes placed in churches for parishioners to deposit coins for the poor were opened and the contents distributed on December 26. In the late 18th century, lords and ladies of the manor would “box up” the food left over from their Christmas feasts — or gifts — and distribute them the day after Christmas to tenants who lived and worked on their land. During the Age of Exploration, when great sailing ships were setting off to discover new lands, a Christmas Box was carried for good luck on the treacherous sea voyages. Priests would place small containers on ships before their departure, and crewmen wishing for a safe return would drop money into the box, which was then sealed and kept on board for the voyage. If the ship returned safely, the box was handed back to the priest, still sealed, and kept until Christmas when it would be opened and its contents shared with the poor. Any one of these noble traditions might have given rise to the moniker of the giving day.
Over the years and centuries, Boxing Day gift-giving expanded to include any and all who had rendered a service during the year. The tradition survives today as employers present gifts or bonuses to their workers, and people give presents to tradesmen, postmen, doormen, dustmen, milkmen, porters, and others on whose services our daily lives often depend. In the US, the tradition of tipping at Christmas is generous and widespread.
Boxing Day is marked and celebrated as a bank holiday in the UK, New Zealand, Canada and Australia and other Commonwealth countries. In South Africa, Boxing Day was renamed the Day of Goodwill in 1994. In Ireland it is called St. Stephen’s Day (Lá Fhéile Stiofáin) or the Day of the Wren (Lá an Dreoilín). In several European countries, including the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Poland, December 26 is celebrated as the Second Christmas Day, and is generally simply a continuation of the previous day’s festivities.
Boxing Day is also known as the Feast of St. Stephen. (The day that Good King Wenceslas Looked Out and ventured out into the cold winter’s night to give alms to a poor man…) St. Stephen was one of the seven original deacons of the Christian church and was specially ordained by the Apostles to care for the poor and displaced, especially the widows amongst those needy souls. St. Stephen was also the patron saint of horses, so Boxing Day is traditionally marked by sporting events, especially horse races and hunts.