Boxing Day – What’s That?

   A group of orphans receiving gifts in East London, 1921 (Topical Press Agency / Getty)

Boxing Day is celebrated on December 26 in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a few other places. It has nothing to do with the sport of boxing. While the exact origins of the holiday are obscure, it is likely that Boxing Day began in England back as far as the Middle Ages. Some historians say the holiday developed because servants were required to work on Christmas Day but were given or took the following day off. As servants prepared to leave to visit their families, their employers would present them with gift boxes.

Another theory is that the  donation boxes in churches – the so-called “poor boxes”  – were opened and the contents or alms distributed on December 26 to the poor and the needy. This church-connection may stem from the fact that December 26th  is also the Feast of St. Stephen.

In Victorian times – Boxing Day gift-giving expanded to include those who had rendered a service during the previous year. This tradition survives today as people give presents to tradesmen, mail carriers, doormen, porters, and others who have helped them.

Whatever the exact origins  today Boxing Day is a public secular holiday wherever it is celebrated. Some go shopping while others visit family and friends. Few in the United States celebrate or really know about the traditions of Boxing Day.

Read this December 2009 article in the TimesWorld for Claire Suddath’s take on Boxing Day including the story of Good King Wenceslas and his connection to the day.