Boxing Day

By DiAnne Crown

August 23, 2012 5 min read

Boxing Day has various historical connotations, none of which involves pugilism. This traditional holiday is celebrated Dec. 26 in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, parts of China and other countries, often in conjunction with the feast day of the Christian martyr St. Stephen. That much is known. Why? That is the story. Several books detail its origins and contemporary interpretations.

"From Victorian times until fairly recently, Dec. 26 was the day on which better-off households gave gifts to servants, tradesmen and the local poor, often presented in boxes," says Niall Edworthy in "The Curious World of Christmas."

"Another theory contends the name dates back to the late Middle Ages, when alms boxes were placed in churches for the collection of donations, which were handed to the poor on the day after Christmas. ... In the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, it developed into a public holiday from the old tradition of giving servants the day off, in recognition of all the work they put in during the preparation of the Christmas Day celebrations, (as in,) 'There we go, Miss Atkins, you have a nice lie-down today, and here's a box of candied carrots in gratitude for the 23-hour days you've been working for the past three months.'"

T.J. Crippen's "Christmas and Christmas Lore" describes various origins, materials and shapes of boxes used to collect money -- boxes that couldn't be opened except by breaking, which was done the day after Christmas when all likely gifts and gratuities had been received -- and those who used them.

Quoting W.H. Husk: "Every householder was duly waited upon by the postman, the lamplighter, the waits, the turncock, the parish beadle, the dustman, the parish watchman and others."

"Be that as it may," writes Crippen, "the best kind of Christmas box, that which is most in accord with the genius of the season, is one recommended as long ago as the days of Nehemiah: 'Go your way, eat of the fat and drink of the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is provided.'"

"The origin of Boxing Day probably goes back eight centuries to the Middle Ages," writes Ace Collins in "Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas." "In both large and small churches throughout England, money boxes were placed near the buildings' entrances. These metal boxes, first brought to the British Isles by Roman soldiers as containers used to keep winnings from games of chance, found their way into sanctuaries as a means of gathering special offers tied to the Feast of St. Stephen. ...

"Some legends state the tin boxes (were first) brought into churches because Roman soldiers had gambled for Christ's clothing as he died on the cross. These boxes therefore became symbols representing the gift of Christ's sacrifice. This legend might have some basis in fact, but it is more likely the boxes were used in churches because they were plentiful, durable and cheap.

"Boxing Day took on its current form and gained status as a fully recognized holiday during the reign of Queen Victoria ... thereby increasing the Christmas generosity of the upper class to those who garnered so much of Christ's attention while he walked on earth: the sick, the lame, the poor and the forgotten."

Today, Boxing Day and the Feast Day of St. Stephen are celebrated in a wide variety of ways, according to Tanya Gulevich's comprehensive "Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations," including some celebrations that just happen to be on those days, regardless of any spiritual significance.

In Australia, people enjoy sporting events such as yachting and cricket. Belize dancers celebrate "John Canoe," a version of the festive Junkanoo costumed parade. South Africans observe Boxing Day much like the British, "giving tips to workers who have served them throughout the year, such as garbage collectors," says Gulevich.

Collins concludes on the evolution of the tradition: "While Boxing Day in the United Kingdom has traditionally involved very personal giving, in America, a host of different charities have adopted the essence of this British holiday in a more corporate fashion.

"The first to fully understand the power of the special compassion felt by millions at Christmas was the Salvation Army. For more than a century, this organization's bell-ringers have been out in force in the weeks before Christmas, seeking donations to fund its many Christian programs. Over the years, scores of other groups have joined them," including churches that take up special collections. "So, while Boxing Day is all but unknown in America, its spirit is very much alive."

For more information, Google "Boxing Day traditions" for a fine look into the day's history and ideas to create your own day-after-Christmas celebrations.

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