In the UK, the 26th of December is a public holiday known as Boxing Day. When I first moved to London and heard about this holiday, I assumed it must be when everyone relaxes after Christmas and watches the sport of boxing on TV. I was hoping that people didn’t actually put on gloves and duke it out themselves.
As it turns out, the day after Christmas has nothing to do with the gloved sport. Nor does it have anything to do with boxing up unappreciated gifts to take back to the shops. Nor with boxing up Christmas ornaments to return the house to a semblance of order. In fact, this oddly-named day has to do with charity.
The term ‘Boxing Day’ gained popularity with the Victorians. In 1871 it was declared a bank holiday. However, the tradition of charitable giving on the day after Christmas may have existed long before the Victorians gave the day a name.
As with many age-old traditions, the beginnings are blurred in history, but here are some ideas about this strange name…
One idea is that the term ‘Boxing Day’ comes from alms boxes that were placed outside churches to collect money for the poor. These boxes were opened on The Feast of Stephen (St. Stephen’s Day), which is the 26th of December, and distributed to the poor.
So who is this saint who inspires us to generosity after Christmas? Stephen is mentioned in the Bible as one of the deacons who distributed food and alms to the poor and his saint day is therefore associated with charity.
In the Victorian Christmas song, Good King Wenceslas, the said good king trudges out into the freezing-cold, snowy night to save a poor peasant and take him food and firewood on the Feast of Stephen.
Through the ages, the tradition of giving to those less fortunate came to include the people who serve us during the year. Centuries ago the Aristocratic landowners would give their employees a day off on St. Stephen’s Day and send them home with a Christmas box. These boxes were a sort of Christmas bonus and might contain money, small gifts, or food. Later this tradition began to include tradespeople, such as postmen, store clerks, and others who provided services throughout the year.
However Boxing Day got its name, I like the idea of a day of charity. I think people still consider the holiday period as a time to help others less fortunate than themselves. My husband and I give to charities year round, but we give a bit extra during the holidays.
It’s nice to know that this public holiday with a strange name is all about giving.
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