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

Boxing Day message on calendar
(Image credit: Getty Images/VStock RF)

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

When the Christmas dinner has been eaten, all of the gifts have been unwrapped and the children are busy playing with their brand new Christmas toys and presents, 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!

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 where on earth did the name 'Boxing Day' come from?

Where did the tradition of Boxing Day come from?

Boxing Day falls on December 26 every year. The tradition is thought to have originated in the UK, unlike the origin of Black Friday (opens in new tab). However, there are conflicting opinions on where the name for the day actually came from.

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.

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.

Peters Pence alms box or poor box 1473, Holy Trinity church, Blythburgh, Suffolk, England, UK

Peter's Pence alms box - or poor box - which dates back to 1473. The box can still be seen in Holy Trinity church, Suffolk | Getty Images

These boxes were traditionally opened - and the contents distributed to those in need - on the day after Christmas. This day was chosen because it was when the feast day of St Stephen - the first Christian martyr - was celebrated.

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

Why is the day after Christmas Day called Boxing Day?

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.

Some say that the day after Christmas got its name because originally it was a time over the festive period when servants would be given the day off and would be given a Christmas box or hamper from their employers to celebrate. This box would often be full of leftover food (opens in new tab) from the day before. The box would then be taken home by the servants to celebrate and enjoy with their families.

Why is it called Boxing Day. A picture called 'December - Boxing Day' by 19th century.Artist George Cruikshank

A picture of a Boxing Day scene by 19th-century artist George Cruikshank. | Getty Images).

The origins of the name can also be traced back to when the rich upper classes would spend the day after Christmas Day boxing up gifts to give to the poor. Wealthy Victorians did this as a festive act of charity and goodwill.

Rachael Martin
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.