Today, Boxing Day and its promise of bargains in the sales bears no relation to the day’s origin.
In some countries, notably Britain and those in which it has historically had a major influence, today is Boxing Day. And, Being British, it seems peculiar to me that the Boxing Day public holiday that I have known since birth is, in fact, only recognised in a few countries and is generally unknown worldwide. On the other hand, being American, Lisa is unfamiliar with it.
Boxing Day is a secular holiday that is traditionally celebrated on December 26 – which is also St Stephen’s Day, a religious holiday in some, mainly catholic, countries. They, however, do not include Spain where Boxing Day is not a national holiday. Only two of the country’s 18 autonomous communities recognise St Stephen’s Day/Esteve as a holiday. These are Catalonia and the Balearic Islands that include Majorca, Minorca, Ibiza and Formentera.
Similarly, the day is not an American-wide celebration. December 26 is given as a holiday to state employees in the states of Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas but it is not known as Boxing Day.
Today, the day has become more about grabbing a bargain on the first day of the sales, similar to the USA’s Black Friday following Thanksgiving but the origin of Boxing Day is interesting as various competing theories exist.
The Oxford English Dictionary says the earliest use arose in England in the 1830s, defining it as ‘the first weekday after Christmas Day, observed as a holiday on which postmen, errand-boys and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas-box’. However, the term Christmas-box dates back as far as the 17th century.
Traditionally, it was a gift or gratuity given at Christmas. In Britain, it was a custom for tradespeople to be given ‘Christmas boxes’ of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. Indeed, this is mentioned by the famous diarist Samuel Pepys in his entry for December 19, 1663.
This custom seems to be linked to an older English tradition when servants would have to wait on their masters on Christmas Day, and on the next day were allowed to visit their families. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses and sometimes leftover food.
In continental Europe, a long tradition of giving money and other gifts to those who were needy and in service positions, has existed since the Middle Ages. This may have come from the Alms Box placed in areas of worship to collect donations to the poor. Alternatively, it may have originated from a custom in the late Roman/early Christian era, when metal boxes are said to have been placed outside churches to collect special offerings tied to the feast of St Stephen which, as I said earlier, falls on the same day as Boxing Day, December 26 – although, when that is at the weekend, the holiday is moved to the next available weekday.