The Origins of Boxing Day

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podcast Transcript

Every year, primarily in Commonwealth countries, the day after Christmas is a legal holiday. 

It is a rather odd holiday in that it doesn’t celebrate anything or anyone in particular. Most people who celebrate the day have no clue what the origins of the holiday are, and many of the people who think they know the origins of the day are wrong.

Learn more about Boxing Day and how the day after Christmas became a holiday on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Growing up as an American, Boxing Day just wasn’t a thing. 

When I first heard about Boxing Day, I had no clue what boxing had to do with it. Did someone really dedicate an entire day to punching each other in the middle of a ring?  Was there a wrestling day? 

If so, that would be awesome. An entire day devoted to celebrating piledrivers and figure-four leg locks is something I could really get behind. It would be the one day a year you could kick your best friend through a plate glass window, and it would be socially acceptable. Luchador masks would be fashionable.

As I began traveling the world, I was able to spend several Boxing Days in places that actually celebrated Boxing Day. 

I would ask people who celebrated Boxing Day, usually British, Canadians, or Australians, exactly what Boxing Day was about? 

The answers I got were all over the place.

One common explanation was that Boxing Day was the day that Christmas decorations were put back into boxes. At first glance, this seemed reasonable. There were boxes involved, and it had something to do with Christmas, so it checked out. 

However, I got different explanations from other people. Another explanation I received was that boxing day had to do with people putting gifts they received back into boxes so they could be returned. That didn’t seem quite as legit as that seemed like a rather modern development. 

I even had one British guy tell me that Boxing Day was, in fact, named after the sweet science of pugilism. This explanation, despite my initial thoughts, when I first heard of the holiday, just didn’t make sense. 

So, I went on a quest to discover the true meaning of Boxing Day. 

While Boxing Day itself isn’t a religious holiday, December 26 has a religious feast day associated with it. 

Traditionally, December 26 was the feast of Saint Stephen. Saint Stephen is considered to be the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death after being tried for blasphemy sometime around the year 34.

As it came immediately after Christmas, it was considered the traditional second of the twelve days of Christmas. 

Saint Stephens Day even makes the occasional appearance in Christmas carols. In the song Good King Wenceslas, the first line is “Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,” which is December 26.

OK, so December 26 had some sort of meaning that medieval people ascribed to it. 

…but that still doesn’t have anything to do with boxing. 

The truth, unlike many holidays with an ancient or even medieval origin, is that Boxing Day is a relatively recent invention. The Oxford English Dictionary reports that the first usage of the word in print only dates back to 1833. However, the reference to December 26th as Boxing Day became popularized during the reign of Queen Victoria

The term refers to a Christmas box. 

What, then, is a Christmas Box?

The origin of the Christmas Box probably dates back to the 18th century. I’ll let the Oxford English Dictionary describe it. A Christmas Box is, 

A present or gratuity given at Christmas: in Great Britain, usually confined to gratuities given to those who are supposed to have a vague claim upon the donor for services rendered to him as one of the general public by whom they are employed and paid, or as a customer of their legal employer; the undefined theory being that as they have done offices for this person, for which he has not directly paid them, some direct acknowledgment is becoming at Christmas.

So, a Christmas Box was basically a tip given after Christmas. 

So, why was this associated with Christmas and not New Year’s Day? 

Victorian England was an extremely economically stratified society. Very wealthy people could have dozens of people working for them in their house staff. Even middle-class people could hire a housekeeper. 

If you had a house staff, they would probably have to work on Christmas Day while your family had Christmas festivities. 

The day after Christmas, your servants would have the day off so they could spend time with their families.  The staff would be given boxes with money, gifts, and often leftovers from the Christmas meal.

This tradition was eventually extended to other tradespeople and employees as a sort of end-of-the-year bonus. 

There are other theories on the origin of Christmas Boxes. 

Another theory, which is similar, is that the boxes refer to alms that were left at churches during the advent season. The day after Christmas, the boxes would be given out to the poor, hence, boxing day. 

It is entirely possible that both theories are true and that the day of giving Christmas Boxes to one group was later extended to the other group. 

Either way, it involved boxes with gifts being given to people the day after Christmas. 

Over time economic conditions in Britain changed, and the tradition of Christmas boxes died out. 

However, Boxing Day, as a holiday in its own right, stuck around. People still acknowledged the day as a day off, even if the original purpose behind it disappeared. 

It eventually became an official bank holiday and a part of the calendar. 

As the British set out and colonized an enormous chunk of the world, they took the tradition of Boxing Day with them. Boxing Day is an official holiday in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria, the former British colonies in the Caribbean, and Singapore. South Africa keeps the day as a holiday but now calls it The Day of Goodwill.

Likewise, many other European countries have December 26th as a holiday, but they refer to it as St. Stephens Day. The fact that it is a holiday really has more to do with its proximity to Christmas than it does with the importance of Saint Stephen on the religious calendar.

In many countries, they just informally call it “second Christmas.”

Today, Boxing Day is really just an excuse to have another day off. In the UK, it has become a popular day for sporting matches like football/soccer and cricket. 

It has also become a huge shopping day. It has often been compared to black Friday. There are boxing day sales, and most stores are open. In fact, for many countries with boxing day on the calendar, it is the biggest shopping day of the year, making the Black Friday comparison rather apt.

While Boxing Day is usually held on December 26, it is often moved to December 27 if Christmas falls on a Saturday. 

Believe it or not, there is a movement to adopt Boxing Day as a thing in the United States

To be fair, the vast majority of Americans still have no clue what boxing day is. However, there is a great deal of demand by retail outlets for yet another shopping day, and Boxing Day fits the bill. 

It is usually just called an after-Christmas sale, but there have been a few cases of people actually calling it boxing day. 

Believe it or not, Boxing Day is a state holiday in Massachusetts. They don’t call it boxing day on the calendar, but it’s on the calendar. 

For those of you who don’t know anything about Boxing Day, now your know. 

For those of you who do celebrate Boxing Day, I hope you enjoy your Boxing Day celebrations of going to the mall and watching sports on TV. 

Also, remember to sing your Boxing Day carols, trim the Boxing Day tree, eat the traditional Boxing Day sandwiches, and have a very joyous Boxing Day.