What is the meaning of Boxing Day?

Sarah Coles
Santa Claus holding Happy Boxing Day sign
Santa Claus holding Happy Boxing Day sign

Boxing Day has taken on all sort of meanings for most of us: shopping in the sales, eating leftovers, watching the football and bickering with close relatives being top of most people's lists. But what is the real meaning of Boxing Day?

As with most traditions, it evolved over centuries, so tracing it back to its origins isn't straightforward. Over the years, two main competing theories have emerged.

1. Christmas boxes

The first theory holds that the origin of the word starts with the 'Christmas box'. In the 17th century the apprentices of companies took an earthenware box around to customers at Christmas to collect money, and when it was full it would be broken open and shared among all the workers.

By the 18th century, the boxes had fallen out of favour, so people would traditionally tip tradespeople, servants, postmen, policemen and butchers' and bakers' delivery men during the festive season - it was still traditional to call it the 'Christmas box'.

The word Boxing Day emerged in the 1830s, when it became common for tradespeople to specifically ask for their Christmas box the day after Christmas, and wealthy households came to tip their servants on the same day of the year because it was usual for them to return home for the day, and take their Christmas box with them.

By the 1850s commentators were complaining at the expense of the day, and cartoonists were suggesting people ought to pretend to be out on the day in order to stay solvent into the New Year.

2. Alms boxes

The second theory is that it originated with the church. The 26th is St Stephen's Day, named after St Stephen, who lived just after the time of Christ. He was one of seven deacons who oversaw the distribution of alms and the serving of the poor. In the centuries that followed, churches collected money from the congregation throughout the year in an 'alms box'. This was opened on Christmas Day, and distributed to the poor of the parish on the next day: Boxing Day

In the UK it's a peculiarly English and Welsh tradition, and the Bank Holiday was established in 1871: by contrast it only became a Scottish Bank holiday in 1974. The tradition has also been exported to some Commonwealth countries including Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Alternative theories

As with any old custom, there are plenty of other theories as to where the word might have come from. These two are generally accepted to be the most likely. However, other folklorists are always willing to debate alternatives. These include:

In Medieval times, the Lord of the Manor was obliged to give annual stipends to his serfs. It was easiest to do this the day after Christmas because people would gather together, and so the goods for each family were put into boxes to make them easier to distribute. There was nothing charitable about this: it was money and goods he owed to them each year.

Sailing ships used to keep a sealed box of money on board for good luck. If they returned safely, the box would be given to a priest who would open it at Christmas and give the money to the poor.

Or perhaps the tradition started in Ancient Rome, when money was collected in boxes to pay for the Olympic Games (while Greece was under Roman rule).

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