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It is Boxing Day! But why do we call it that? And since when?

What does it have to do with fisticuffs? Or is it something to do with boxing up unwanted gifts the day after Christmas?

At least someone on a pub quiz team will boldly claim it is definitely a Victorian creation – and a quizmaster would normally give that as a correct answer…

But the origins are a little more murky than that.

Actually, ‘boxing’ was a term given to the charitable act of giving… and ‘Boxing Day’ did, it is true, become an official bank holiday in 1871, which is when Queen Victoria sat the throne. Being not just Queen but actually Empress Victoria, is why it is celebrated today, still, in so many countries around the world, as it became an Empire-wide holiday, not just a British one.

In saying the above, it became an ‘official’ Bank Holiday because it had for some time been an unofficial one…

There was already a tradition that household servants, having sacrificed their own family time to serve the lords and ladies and the families of their households on Christmas Day, would be given the next day off to spend with their families. They would be given boxes of leftovers, gifts or tips, and the lords and ladies of the manor would, in the absence of their servants, enjoy a feast of cold cuts and leftovers themselves that day. Well, you wouldn’t expect them to cook for themselves, would you?

So it was the aristocracy and the gentry, then, that came up with this idea of giving to their servants on the 26th December? And coined that act ‘boxing’?

No, it wasn’t. Much earlier than the Victorian period, working class folk and labourers would spend the 26th December roving about to get ‘boxes’ – which really was a linguistic term that had come to mean ‘tips’ – from those whom they had served throughout the year. Essayist Jonathan Swift, in 1710, wrote: “I shall be undone here by Christmas boxes. The rogues at the coffeehouse have raised their tax, every one giving a crown, and I gave mine for shame…”. Some people think the same, in the 21st century, about the way 12.5% gets automatically added to their bills at restaurants. Funny how things change, yet somehow stay the same…

1710 is not the earliest mention of this phenomenon though. Samuel Pepys, the diarist famous amongst other things for documenting the Great Fire of London, hinted at the idea in 1663: “Thence by coach to my shoemaker’s and paid all there, and gave something to the boys’ box…”.

So why December 26th? Why not December 25th? That’s the day for the giving and receiving of gifts, surely?

Well… no, not necessarily. You all know something of the truth of it, or at least you do if you know the old carol about Good King Wenceslas – although how many of us ever paid attention to the words? It tells the story of King Wenceslas – who was actually a Duke in 10th century Bohemia – who, on the Feast of Stephen (St Stephen’s Day, being December 26th), spotted a poor peasant in the snow trying to gather fuel. He asked his page who the man was and where he lived. The Page replied that he lived some distance away in a cave underneath the mountain at the edge of the forest, to which Wenceslas then replied, so the carol goes:

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine,

Bring me pine logs hither,

Thou and I will see him dine,

When we bear them thither”

And the carol later ends:

“Therefore, Christian men be sure,

Wealth or rank possessing,

Ye who now will bless the poor,

Shall yourselves find blessing.”

So this carol about King Wenceslas’s good doings on December 26th was written in Britain 1853, about a Duke who had died in Bohemia in 935 AD – but it didn’t take 900 years to remember him this way. Certainly by as early as the 1100’s, Saint Wenceslas – canonized almost immediately after his death by murder at the hands of his brother, and in the act becoming seen as a martyr – was being venerated by Christian preachers for his habit of delivering alms and charity and doing good deeds.

But why the mention of St. Stephen’s Day, on December 26th? Well, since as early as the third century AD, ‘boxes’ had been installed in churches for Advent, and then on St Stephen’s Day these boxes were opened and the alms and money collected was distributed to the poor – and hence where the term Boxing came from.

But who was St. Stephen? In fact, he was the first Arch Deacon, and the first Martyr – the proto-martyr – stoned to death in 36 AD, just a couple of years after Jesus Christ himself was crucified. But in life, his job – as appointed by the apostles – was to distribute food and charitable aid to the needy….

And this is all why and how the act of giving became associated with his Saint’s Day, on December 26th; why alms boxes in churches became a tradition to fill during advent for distribution to the poor on his feast day; why Duke Wenceslas went about on that day giving gifts to his poorer folk; why over the following centuries, poorer folk became used to the idea that on that day they would receive boxes – a term meaning ‘tips’ – from those they served; why later on than that, Victorian servants were presented with boxes of gifts, leftovers and money on the 26th December, harking back to the alms boxes of the third century churches, and were given the day off as holiday; why by 1871 the Crown formalised this holiday and named it for the act of ‘boxing’ it was originally associated with; and why, being an official public holiday named in an act of parliament during Queen Victoria’s reign, we and other commonwealth nations still celebrate it as ‘Boxing Day’ today.

How it has somehow (I feel) lost its charitable flavour and become – instead of a day of giving – more of a day for shopping; and how it has become such a big day for hunting, rugby and football… well, that’s another story! But, a day for cold cuts and leftovers – at least for these Wallers – it most definitely remains, to this day.