No, we didn’t establish a bank holiday just for eating leftover roast potatoes and turkey sandwiches. Nor is it a holiday for those brave enough to face the post-Christmas sale shopping madness. And no it doesn’t have anything to do with the sport of boxing either. Boxing Day is a holiday celebrated in the UK and many other Commonwealth nations, but no-one really knows why.
The 26th of December is also known as St Stephen’s Day and was celebrated as the Feast of St Stephen since the early Christian period. Although Stephen was the first Christian martyr and a saint important enough to be celebrated the day after Christmas, by the 1800s, the religious festival was pushed aside for the secular Boxing Day and the first recorded instance of the term comes from 1809.
One theory on the origin of the term comes from the religious celebrations: the box refers to the alms box which was used to collect money in the church. The contents were then distributed to the poor on St Stephen’s Day.
Another theory comes from sailing since large ships would carry a sealed box of money on board for good luck. If the ship arrived safely, a priest would open the box on Christmas Day and give the money to the poor. This one seems fairly unlikely since, following the theory, Boxing Day would fall on the 25th, not the 26th.
The most plausible answer seems to be that Boxing Day comes from the custom of giving Christmas Boxes of money or presents to servants on the day after Christmas. Essentially, a Christmas bonus. This tradition is mentioned as early as 1663 in Samuel Pepy’s diary so it is quite possible that the practise gave rise to the term Boxing Day eventually. It could also be related to the custom of the St Stephen’s Day alms box as well as the older tradition of giving the servants the day off on the day after Christmas to be with their families since they would have to work on Christmas Day itself.