December 26th is known by a few names, including Second Christmas Day, Saint Stephen’s (Feast) Day, Boxing Day and Offering Day. While “Second Christmas Day” makes sense as a name, and is observed in Scandinavia, Germany and several Eastern European countries and St. Stephen’s Day is a religious feast day for Christians, Boxing Day is a secular holiday observed within the United Kingdom and its commonwealth nations whose name seems a tad more curious. Given the nature of this holiday, Offering Day is just a synonym of Boxing Day without the slightly different cultural significance of the first two names on this list.
To put it plainly, it remains unclear why Boxing Day was given its particular name. Rather than try to claim one explanation as the one true answer, this article intends to highlight the leading theories behind the name of this seasonal observance so that the reader can draw his own conclusion. Notably, Boxing Day also serves as the second day of Christmastide, the liturgical observance that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written for.
Explanation #1: Alms Boxes and the Feast of Saint Stephens
Europe has observed the practice of giving currency and other gifts to servants and the needy from as far back as the Middle Ages, a period of time ranging from the 5th to the 15th centuries. Despite this lengthy history of beneficence and altruism, it remains unclear just when Boxing Day came into being.
Some claim that the holiday’s name is taken from the alms box that one could find within the unconsecrated lobby of Christian churches, an area who technical term is the “narthex.” These boxes existed to collect money to be later distributed among the poor, needy and downtrodden.
It is also possible that the perceived alms box connection may be linked to the period of the late Roman empire and Christianity’s early days. During this time, the alms box was intended to serve as a collection vessel. The donations within the box would be put toward offerings connected to Saint Stephen, widely considered to be the first martyr for the Christian Church. While some denominations of Christianity celebrate the Feast of Saint Stephen on the 27th of December, several other denominations honor it on December 26th. Regardless of the date that the feast day is observed, it remains custom for churches to open up their alms boxes and distribute the donations among the poor, either directly or to various charities that the church may be connected to.
Explanation #2: A Conflation of British Traditions
The Oxford English Dictionary happens to trace the first mention of this observance to the 1830s. Its definition for Boxing Day stated that it was the first weekday after Christmas and considered a holiday for public workers and servants whom would be gifted a Christmas box. Furthermore, “Christmas box” is a term that goes back to the 17th Century.
That ancient definition of a Christmas box is any “present or gratuity given on Christmas Day.” Within Great Britain, this was usually limited to people who were allegedly due some repayment for services rendered as a member off the general public. The logic behind this British interpretation is that, because public servants worked for everyone, everyone owed them some sort of repayment. However, because the pay did not come directly from members of the general public, that some sort of acknowledgement should be made on Christmas.
As an aside, this particular interpretation has been made illegal in parts of modern South Africa, as vendors would harass people at home. These vendors would knock on doors ans ask for a “Christmas box,” practically panhandling. Notably, this behavior did not seem to be limited to December 26th and instead began to show up in the weeks prior to or following Christmas Day.
Another British tradition, traced back to a diary entry by one Samuel Pepys and dated the 19th of December in 1663, admits that it was customary for tradesmen to collect Christmas boxes on the first weekday following Christmas. These boxes would be filled with donations of gifts or money throughout the year and effectively served as the tradesmen’s Christmas bonus.
The tradesman’s practice of taking collections throughout the year within a box and then opening that box on Christmas day has its roots in an even older British tradition. Because the servants of rich nobility were forced to work on Christmas Day, December 26th served as a chance for the servants to be given family leave from their masters. The servants would be free to see their family and were usually given a box that contained presents, bonuses and possibly even leftovers from Christmas feasting.
Notably, the events surrounding Good King Wenceslas, a man who was actually a Bohemian Duke of the 10th Century, and his unending kindness to a freezing peasant happened to have fallen on The Feast of Saint Stephen; this particular date may very well have been the reason for Wenceslas’ altruism as the overall reminder of St. Stephen is to make sacrifices to better those less fortunate.
This tradition metamorphosed into the observance within the United Kingdom that encouraged gifting something, often in the form of hard currency, to vendors as a Christmas present. Most vendors would also be closed on Boxing Day, further serving as an homage of the day off that the nobility’s servants enjoyed.
Explanation #3: The Nautical Interpretation
Britain is a nation steeped in naval traditions, due in large part to how impressive their navy was over the centuries. Given this understanding, it should come as no surprise that there happens to be a special observation that may have had a hand in giving Boxing Day its name. This particular naval tradition involved sending ships off with a box loaded with rewards like money, alcohol and other desired goods. The purpose of this box, which would always reach the ship sealed, was to serve as a good luck charm. Should the ship’s mission succeed, the box would be handed off to a priest who would be tasked with ensuring the box’s contents would be distributed among the poor and needy around Christmastime.
These are the three leading theories as to why December 26th is celebrated as Boxing Day among people living in the United Kingdom or British Commonwealth nations.
Extra Innings: Incorrect Reasons
Let us now cover some of the big reasons why this holiday does not have its unique name.
It is not a day for combat sports
While fox hunting tended to be a popular Boxing Day activity among the nobility, this day has no connection to thhe “sweet science” of boxing. In fact, the term “boxer” is derived from the Greek word “pyx,” which means “with clenched fist;” pyx and box sound similar enough from a distance that it makes sense. While one might observe that boxing matches happen in a square arena with ropes, boxes are cubic and not matches did not always occur in a square-shaped venue.
It is not dedicated to the settlement of grudges
While you might engage in a bit of prizefighting with someone over a particular desired item during the holidays or happen to be the type to celebrate a fictional holiday like the “Festivus” of TV sitcom “Seinfeld,” boxing day has no connection to the phrase “box his ears.” To box someone’s ears is to strike someone on the side of the head or on the ear.
Etymologically speaking, the term may have arisen from the same origins as boxing as it specifically uses “box” as a term for striking someone around the head. About the closest this term might come to actual Boxing Day activities would be cruel retribution by the servants if their masters treat them horribly around the holidays. Some consider the policy of masters giving their servants the day off on December 26th to be a way of keeping the serving staff just loyal enough to accept whatever hard life such service entails.
Wrapping Things Up About Boxing Day
While settling the matter of Boxing Day’s etymology remains mostly an academic pursuit about verifying if it is because of the British navy, several converging religious observances or ways for the nobility to keep their servants loyal and happy, the good feelings associated with this holiday among those who celebrate it cannot be disputed. Even if you do not happen to live within the commonwealth, consider donating a bit of your time or your wallet to someone less fortunate than yourself on December 26th, a day that a fair number of Americans informally recognize as “Annual Returns Day.”