26 December 2020

Where Boxing Day got its name - and it’s nothing to do with fighting

You can make a strong argument that Boxing Day is the best part of Christmas Free from the ill-judged gifts, food related stresses and misbehaving family (whether IRL or over Zoom) that can dominate the big day, December 26 is a low-pressure cocktail of brisk walks, delicious leftovers, and the chance to actually use what you’ve been given.

So here’s a potted history of Boxing Day, and how to interpret its name…

Early beginnings

Let’s get one thing out of the way – Boxing Day has absolutely nothing to do with boxing. Repeatedly whacking one another doesn’t seem very Christmassy, though some countries have seized on the name as an opportunity to put on prize-fighting contests.

Cute ginger cat lies in box with Christmas and New Year decorations on wooden background. Fluffy pet with red Santa Claus hat. Fuzzy domestic animal during winter holiday preparation.

Christmas goes back a long way (nearly 1,700 years, to be precise), and the idea of Boxing Day predates its name. Though exact provenance is disputed, it’s broadly agreed the name comes from the giving of Christmas “boxes” – crates of goodies meant to alleviate the sufferings of the poor.

The tradition probably began in the middle ages (exactly when is disputed) in the form of alms boxes, which were usually dispensed on St Stephen’s Day – aka December 26. Some suggest it goes back as far as the Roman Empire, when St Stephen was honoured by collecting money for the poor, though tying that to a particular day is difficult.

What’s in a name

Given these ancient antecedents, it is perhaps surprising that the term ‘Boxing Day’ only emerged in the 19th century. The Oxford English Dictionary states it was first used in print in the 1830s, clearly associated with post-Christmas charity.

Christmas wrapping paper used

The Victorians have a reputation for naming and formalising vague traditions, and so it was with Boxing Day, which was designated a public holiday in 1871. Employers would (sometimes) give boxes to their employees, and domestic staff often received boxes of leftovers they could share with their families.

The munificence of Boxing Day may have faded down the years – but even a generation ago the idea of giving tradespeople ‘boxes’ was still relatively widespread. A British tradition originally, most of the Anglosphere have now taken Boxing Day as their own, although not all use the term.

One exception is the United States, where Boxing Day is not officially a federal holiday – though it is often de facto taken as one.

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