Why is it called Boxing Day and what are the origins of the celebration?

Here's the history of the day after Christmas

Presents and a frame reading Happy Boxing Day
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Ever wondered why the day after Christmas Day is called Boxing Day - and where did the celebration originally came from?

After you've eaten all of the best Christmas food, the gifts have been unwrapped and the children are busy playing with their brand new Christmas toys in their matching Christmas pyjamas, Boxing Day is a chance to rest and unwind after another busy Christmas Day.

For some, Boxing Day is a time to bag a bargain and shop the sales. For others, it means doing a second Christmas Day with the family you missed seeing the day before! But have you ever wondered where the day comes from? The names for Christmas Day and Christmas Eve (Eve means 'the day or period of time immediately before an event') are pretty self-explanatory. But why is Boxing Day called Boxing Day?

Why is the day after Christmas Day called Boxing Day?

The name Boxing Day comes from a time when the rich used to box up gifts to give to the poor. Traditionally, servants would get the day off and receive a special present from their masters. The servants would also go home on Boxing Day to give Christmas boxes to their families.

Churches also contributed to the creation of Boxing Day. They would collect money from churchgoers in boxes and the donation would be handed out to the poor on the day after Christmas.

A gift box exchanging hands

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The Oxford English Dictionary notes the earliest use of the term 'Boxing Day' as being in Britain in the 1830s. The day is defined 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".

This places the first use of the term in the Victorian era - the Victorians are responsible for many of the Christmas traditions that we know and love today. This includes popularising the decorating of Christmas trees and the sending of Christmas cards.

What did Boxing Day used to be called?

Boxing Day used to be known as Saint Stephen's Day, or the Feast of Saint Stephen. The carol 'Good King Wenceslas' tells the story of the king giving to a peasant  “on the feast of Stephen”. Saint Wenceslas was a 10th-century Bohemian duke who, according to legend, did noble deeds on December 26.

Where did the tradition of Boxing Day come from?

There are conflicting opinions on where Boxing Day actually came from, though the tradition is thought to have originated in the UK, unlike the origin of Black Friday

What most historians can agree on is that the name derives from the act of 'giving boxes' the day after Christmas. The nature of these boxes, who was giving them and who was receiving them, is where theories begin to differ.

AN illustration of a Victorian Boxing day

(Image credit: Getty Images)

One theory is that the tradition of gifting boxes came from Saint Stephen, who is considered Christianity’s first martyr. Known for serving the poor, Saint Stephen is traditionally celebrated with charity and giving on Boxing Day - hence the holiday previously being called Saint Stephen's Day, or the Feast of Saint Stephen.

Alternatively, the tradition of 'Boxing Day' could have begun in the Middle Ages, when money for the poor was collected in offertory boxes (also known as a poor box or alms box) in churches.

However, the use of the name 'Boxing Day' is said to have started in the 1800s.

How is Boxing Day celebrated?

Boxing Day is an official Bank Holiday in the UK, and is associated with sports such as football and rugby as well as fox hunting - though the latter is illegal in England, Scotland and Wales.

The holiday is also associated with Boxing Day sales, which see retailers discounting the prices of old stock.

Banks, post offices and many other businesses are closed on Boxing Day, though shops, pubs and restaurants are generally open - although their opening hours may differ to a normal working day.

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Rachael Martin

An internationally published digital journalist and editor who specialises in SEO strategy and content production, Rachael has worked as a writer and editor for both news and lifestyle websites in the UK and abroad. Rachael's published work covers a broad spectrum of topics and she has written about everything from the future of sustainable travel, to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the world we live in, to the psychology of colour.

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