The day after Christmas Day is known as Boxing Day, and it’s a welcome additional day off work to many. But have you ever wondered why it’s called “Boxing Day”? And why do we get this day off work anyway?
Why do I have the day off on Boxing Day?
If you live in the UK, the reason that Boxing Day is a day off from work is down to the 1871 Bank Holidays Act. It was only after 1871 that the 26th December (or the closest day after Christmas that wasn’t a weekend day) was announced to be a Bank Holiday. It was largely through the work of Liberal MP Sir John Lubbock that Bank Holidays like Boxing day became a thing, since it was he who campaigned for the rights of shop workers and was a driving force behind the passing of the 1871 Act.
But where does the idea of taking the day off come from?
There are several theories about this.
Incidentally, St Stephen’s day has everything to do with the “Feast of Stephen” to which we refer to in the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” that goes:
‘Good King Wenceslas looked out,
On the Feast of Stephen…’
St Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was also the first Deacon in the Church, and because one of the main roles of a Church Deacon is to look after the poor, St. Stephen’s Day is often considered a day for giving food, money, and other items to servants, sevice workers, and the needy.
St Stephen’s message of helping the poor also reveals why we call his day Boxing Day. The boxes it refers to are almsboxes used to collect money for the poor. Christians carried out St Stephen’s message by collecting money in a number of different ways including a special collection day on Christmas Day. Sailors would drop money into a box throughout their voyage, as a donation to God to ensure their safe journey. Once safely back on land, the money would be donated to the Church.
Since early Christianity (which includes during Roman times), the day after Christmas was the day that Churches gave all the money they’d collected in almsboxes to the needy. The opening of the almsboxes is one of the strongest theories behind why we call St Stephen’s day, Boxing Day.
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In a similar spirit, employers often gave servants December 26th off to spend the day with their families. The theory goes that employers would give their servants a box of bonuses, or gifts, and sometimes leftover Christmas food. In Victorian times, tradesmen too profited from Boxing day as a day when they collected their Christmas boxes and gifts from happy clients, giving thanks for their good service throughout the year.
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Today, the spirit of giving is on the whole no longer really a part of Boxing Day, since most schools today don’t teach what the day was originally about, so most people never learned about St Stephen and his day of giving. But a similar Giving Spirit is often quite palpable in the air around Christmas time. So perhaps St Stephen’s noble generous spirit and giving nature still lives on in us around this festive season, regardless of whether we attribute this to St Stephen and the official Boxing Day, or whether we attribute it to a deeply ingrained, long-held tradition of maintaining the generous, giving, Christmas Spirit.