What is Boxing Day?

Today is Boxing Day. I spend it either recovering from Christmas gluttony, or completing another round of relative-visitation. It originated in Britain and is emulated in many Commonwealth countries. It has been a bank holiday here since 1871.

The origins of the term are vague. It probably comes from the seventeenth century when servants, who had been busy waiting on their employers on 25th December, were given the following day off, and awarded a Christmas box filled with goodies that they might share with their relations. The term itself was first formally used in the 1830s when, according to the OED, it was ‘observed as a holiday on which post-men, errand-boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas-box’. According to the Guardian, 'the tradition of giving Christmas boxes to tradespeople was still extant a generation ago but is now disappearing – a reflection of our increasingly atomised and anonymised society, and of the move away from a social structure based on deference and patronage'.

Alternatively, it is a reference to the Alms Box placed churches to collect donations to the poor. Christmas has traditionally been a time during which the less-well-off are especially remembered. During the cold and dark season, when the wealthy are feasting and drinking, only a hard heart could ignore the plight of those who have nothing.

Boxing Day shares its spot on the calendar with the feast of St Stephen, as commemorated in the words of Good King Wenceslas. This carol lacks the requisite theology to gain admittance to most carol services, but it does preserve the spirit of generosity to the poor and servants on the day following Christmas:


Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen,

When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.

Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,

When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.


“Hither, page, and stand by me, if you know it, telling,

Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”

“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain,

Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”


“Bring me food and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither,

You and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”

Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,

Through the cold wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.


“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger,

Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”

“Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread now in them boldly,

You shall find the winter’s rage freeze your blood less coldly.”


In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;

Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure, while God’s gifts possessing,

You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.


The final line explains the meaning of Boxing Day. Now contrast that with the modern Britain’s Boxing Day sales. According to the Daily Mirror,

Bargain mad Brits will throw Brexit caution to the wind as they smash Boxing Day sales records and splurge £4.5 billion in Boxing Day's sales extravaganza.

The Nation’s love of a deal will see 23 million hit the high street and malls from 6am in a spending spree that shows no signs of slowing down.

Diehards braved the chill to queue from dawn to make sure they were first in line for a stack of offers with prices slashed by more than 80%.

Department store Debenhams opens its doors from 7am for the annual bonanza with savings worth £135 million up for grabs.

Although there will doubtless be some frugal types among these crowds, cannily purchasing next year’s presents, I assert that most people will be shopping for themselves. I enjoy a bargain myself, don’t misunderstand me. But there’s a sad irony that Boxing Day, which is traditionally a time to give to others less fortunate, has become a selfish and greedy shopping day.