The first thing to say about Boxing Day is that its origins have nothing to do with boxing, or with putting used wrapping paper into boxes, or with boxing up all your unwanted presents, or indeed with football, horse racing, hunting, shopping, going for icy mass swims in the sea, or any of the other activities that now characterise the day after Christmas and act as an antidote to the languor that descends on households at around teatime on Christmas Day. The origins of Boxing Day lie not in sport, but in small acts of kindness.
It is generally accepted that the name derives from the giving of Christmas “boxes”, but the precise nature of those boxes and when they were first dispensed is disputed. One school of thought argues that the tradition began in churches in the Middle Ages. Parishioners collected money for the poor in alms boxes, and these were opened on the day after Christmas in honour of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose feast day falls on 26 December.
Some suggest the tradition is even older than that, dating back to the Christianised late Roman empire, when similar collections were supposedly made for the poor in honour of St Stephen, but the evidence is sketchy. All we can say for certain is that at some point St Stephen’s Day became associated with public acts of charity.
It was no accident that Good King Wenceslas, who was actually a Duke of Bohemia in the 10th century, risked life and limb on a freezing winter night to feed some wretched peasant who had chosen a most inclement evening to gather winter fuel. His fabled act of generosity took place on the Feast of Stephen, on which day it was a Christian’s duty to help those less fortunate than oneself. Or, as the somewhat
laboured words of the hymn have it: “Therefore Christian men be sure, / Wealth or Rank possessing, / Ye who now will bless the poor / Shall yourselves find blessing.”
The problem in terms of dating when the Feast of Stephen became the day for alms-giving and box-opening is that the Good King Wenceslas hymn, which was written by John Mason Neale, dates from 1853. As with most things to do with Christmas, it was the Victorians who fleshed out the meaning of Boxing Day. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the term to the 1830s. Neale clearly recognised the association of the day in the public mind with charity, and in 1871 St Stephen’s Day was designated a bank holiday. What had previously been an amorphous tradition now, thanks to the structured minds and myth-making tendencies of the Victorians, became a seasonal necessity.
As part of this seasonal beneficence, some employers in the Victorian period gave Christmas boxes to their staff. In large households, after serving their employers on Christmas Day, domestic staff were allowed time off on Boxing Day to visit their own families, and went off clutching Christmas boxes full of leftover food.
That at least is the suggestion, though there may be an element of Downton Abbeyish wishful thinking here. Scrooge’s attitude (pre-reformation) to Bob Cratchit’s paid holiday on Christmas Day – “A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December” – may have been more representative.
The tradition of giving Christmas boxes to tradespeople is now disappearing – a reflection of our atomised society
What is undeniably true is that the practice developed of people giving Christmas boxes – commonly a small gift or some money – to tradespeople who had provided them with good service in the course of the year. The Victorians may have given the name to Boxing Day, but this tradition predates the 19th century. It was certainly prevalent in 17th-century England, as the entry in Samuel Pepys’ diary for 19 December 1663 attests. “By coach to my shoemaker’s and paid all there,” he reports, “and gave something to the boys’ box against Christmas.”
The tradition of giving Christmas boxes to tradespeople was still extant a generation ago but is now disappearing – a reflection of our increasingly atomised and anonymised society, and of the move away from a social structure based on deference and patronage. For better or worse, Christmas really isn’t what it used to be.
Boxing Day is primarily a British tradition, and the UK has exported it to Australia, Canada and New Zealand (in each of which it has become primarily a shopping and sporting day). The term is little used in the US, and 26 December is not usually a federal holiday, though it is this year because Christmas Day falls on a Sunday. The 26th is a holiday in western Europe, but most countries designate it the “second day of Christmas” rather than Boxing Day.
Just to complicate matters, eastern orthodox Christian countries celebrate St Stephen’s Day on 27 December. They do not associate it with Christmas boxes nor, coming from the chillier parts of Europe, do they plunge headlong into frozen seas and lakes. They go to church, eat and drink copiously, and watch the telly instead. How very sensible.