Why historians disagree about the origins of Boxing Day, the post-Christmas British holiday

The December 26 holiday was likely inspired by the charitable traditions of St. Stephen's Day—but no one is quite sure which one. Here are the theories and how it's celebrated today.

Published 22 Dec 2020, 12:24 GMT
Celebrated on December 26, Boxing Day isn't named for leftover Christmas gift boxes or the sport ...

Celebrated on December 26, Boxing Day isn't named for leftover Christmas gift boxes or the sport of boxing. While its origins are lost to time, many believe the holiday was derived from a British tradition of charitable giving.

Photograph by Richard Brocken, Hollandse Hoog​te

The presents are unwrapped, everyone’s stuffed, and Christmas is over. What now?

If you’re British or live in a Commonwealth nation, Christmas doesn’t end on December 25. The day after Christmas is known as Boxing Day, and the relaxed holiday is a chance to extend the celebration for one more restful day.

But its name has nothing to do with the sport of boxing, and contrary to popular belief, did not arise from a need to return unwanted gifts or clean up rubbish (yes, and boxes) generated by Christmas gifting. Here’s how Boxing Day got its name—and how it’s celebrated around the world.

The origins of Boxing Day

Though historians disagree on the exact origin of Boxing Day, it is thought to have grown out of longstanding British traditions of charitable giving and goodwill—practices especially associated with the Christian festival of Saint Stephen’s Day, which is celebrated on December 26.

One of the first deacons of the Christian church, Saint Stephen was killed for his beliefs around A.D 36 and is considered Christianity’s first martyr. Known for serving the poor, Saint Stephen is traditionally celebrated with charity and the distribution of alms.

If you’ve ever heard the carol “Good King Wenceslas,” you may recall that the king tramps through deep snow in a bid to give alms to a poor peasant. The king was a real figure: Saint Wenceslas, a 10th-century Bohemian duke who, according to legend, did noble deeds “on the feast of Stephen”—December 26.

There are several theories as to how that charitable tradition became known as “boxing.” Some historians tie the use of the term to boxes of donations that were installed in churches during the pre-Christmas season of Advent in the early days of Christianity during the second and third centuries A.D. The day after Christmas, the boxes were opened and the money distributed to the poor.

Another theory is tied to a practice that arose around the 16th century. Working-class people would spend December 26 seeking out Christmas “boxes,” or tips, from the people they had served throughout the year.

Though popular, the practice wasn’t beloved by everyone. In 1710, for example, essayist Jonathan Swift complained that “I shall be undone here by Christmas boxes. The rogues at the coffeehouse have raised their tax, every one giving a crown, and I gave mine for shame, besides a great many half-crowns to great men’s porters &c.”

Another possible origin story for Boxing Day has to do with a tradition that evolved in socially stratified 19th century Victorian England, where servants sacrificed time with their own families to cater to their aristocratic employers on Christmas. On the day after Christmas, employers would give the servants a rare day off and send them home with leftovers from the family’s Christmas feast, plus gifts and tips. In their servants’ absence, writes historian Andrea Broomfield, these lords and ladies would eat an informal feast of leftovers. (See how Christmas is celebrated around the world.)

How Boxing Day is celebrated

Since 1871, Boxing Day has been an official bank holiday in the United Kingdom, which moves the holiday to Monday if it falls on a weekend to give people more time off. It is also celebrated in many former British colonies that remain part of the Commonwealth, such as Canada, Australia, Nigeria, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago.

Though the reasons are lost to history, Boxing Day charity eventually fell out of tradition—and was replaced with physical and material pleasures. Today, the holiday is associated with sports, with major football, rugby, and cricket matches and horseraces taking place on December 26.

Hunting, especially fox hunting, is also traditional on Boxing Day. Though the sport is outlawed in England and Wales, a form of it that involves artificial scents tracked by dogs and hunters still takes place; in recent years protesters and hunters have clashed, sometimes violently, during Boxing Day events.

December 26 is also a big shopping day throughout the U.K. and the Commonwealth. The holiday kicks off a week during which retailers attempt to move old stock and shoppers vie for one last bargain of the year. In recent years, though, the American tradition of Black Friday—massive sales that take place the day after Thanksgiving each November—has been taking hold in the United Kingdom and has largely overshadowed the dash for purchases after Christmas. (Black Friday shopping hurts the environment—but you can help.)

Some parts of the world have their own traditions for the day. Though Northern Ireland celebrates Boxing Day, the Republic of Ireland to the south celebrates St. Stephen’s Day instead. And on December 26, pockets of people across the entire island continue the tradition of Wren Day, or Lá an Dreolín.

Wren Day’s origins are just as murky as Boxing Day, with competing theories as to whether it evolved from Celtic mythology, Viking invaders, or an early Christian festival. Originally, the holiday was celebrated by “wrenboys” who hunted down and killed a wren—considered to be good luck—and displayed it on a pole. They then paraded through the town to celebrate the wren and ask for donations from their neighbours. Parades are still part of today’s celebrations, in which people dress up in wrenboy costumes made of straw. The holiday is also celebrated on the Isle of Man and in parts of Wales.

Boxing Day may be steeped in tradition, but the COVID-19 pandemic will change the way it’s celebrated. Many stores throughout the U.K. and the Commonwealth will simply close on Boxing Day this year, and fun traditions like “Boxing Day Dips,” during which people run into cold water and raise money for charity, have been cancelled. This year, Boxing Day will go back to the basics as a day for relaxation and eating leftover Christmas food—traditions that no pandemic can extinguish.

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