Origins of Boxing Day in the UK

The day after Christmas Day is referred to as ‘Boxing Day’ in the UK... but why? You may be intrigued to know.

If you’re from the UK, or have spent time there over the festive season or in any of the British commonwealth countries such as Canada, New Zealand or Australia, you may be familiar with Boxing Day.

Boxing Day is a term used frequently in the UK to describe the day after Christmas - December 26 - and is a recognised national holiday in the UK and Ireland.

A typical Boxing Day might involve indulging in a famous family Boxing Day buffet, watching cinema classics, or perhaps it’s simply another working day. The question is… why is December 26 referred to as Boxing Day? It’s got nothing to do with the sport boxing, before we continue.

The term is universally understood to be of British origin. The Oxford English Dictionary traces its earliest print reference to 1833, four years before Charles Dickens referred to it in The Pickwick Papers.

The exact roots of Boxing Day are questionable, but it is generally accepted that the name derives from the giving of ‘boxes’ – focused on little acts of charity and kindness. It’s what the boxes contained that remains a contested issue.

Some historians argue that the origins of this day can be found in churches of medieval Britain, around 800 years ago. People of each parish would collect money for the poor in alms boxes in the days leading up to Christmas.

These boxes were opened on the day after Christmas  - Boxing Day - and the money was handed out to the poor. This act of charity was understood to be in honour of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose saint’s day also falls on December 26.

Others suggest that the tradition can be dated further back, to the late Christianised Roman era, where arguably comparable gathering of monetary donations were believed to be collected in honour of the St Stephen, but this evidence is debatable.

Another similar, but more recent theory is that December 26 was the day centuries ago lords of the manor and aristocrats typically distributed Christmas boxes usually filled with small gifts, money and leftovers from Christmas dinner to their household servants and employees, who were required to work on December 25.

This was to recognise their good service throughout the year. You could say these boxes were equivalent to holiday bonuses.

Despite the various theories on the origins of Boxing Day it was the Victorians who rubber stamped the day in the UK holiday calendar and provided its name. In 1871, Boxing Day was officially designated as a Bank Holiday.

Boxing Day remains a primarily British tradition. It has been exported in parts to Canada, New Zealand and Australia where you’ll also find it referenced.

The term is used infrequently in the USA and is not usually associated with a national holiday. December 26 is an official holiday in Western Europe, but is mostly referred to as the ‘second day of Christmas’ rather than Boxing Day.

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