Boxing Day

Boxing Day is 26 December, the day after Christmas. It is celebrated in Britain and many of the Commonwealth countries, including Canada, but not in the United States. Two competing theories about the origin of the term are common. One is that the name comes from the Christmas box traditionally given to tradespeople on that day. The other is that it comes from the boxes of alms collected by churches in connection with St. Stephen’s Day, which in the Western church calendar falls on the day after Christmas. 

It is this first theory that seems to be the proximate origin of the term. The day after Christmas was the day that gratuities would be given to tradespeople and errand boys. The earliest reference to the custom in the OED is from Samuel Pepys diary of 28 December 1668:

Called up by drums and trumpets; these things and boxes having cost me much money this Christmas.

There is an earlier practice of apprentices collecting Christmas tips in earthenware boxes. This practice is referenced as early as 1611 in Randle Cotgrave’s French-English dictionary:

Tirelire, a Christmas box; a box having a cleft on the lid, or in the side, for money to enter it; used in France by begging Fryers, and here by Butlers, and Prentices, etc.

The first citation of the term Boxing Day itself in the OED is from the Memoirs of Charles Matthews, a comic actor, written in 1833 and published several years later:

To the completion of his dismay, he arrives in London on boxing-day.

Charles Dickens uses the term in his 1837 Pickwick Papers:

No man ever talked in poetry ‘cept a beadle on boxin’ day.

The tradition of churches setting out alms boxes to be opened on St. Stephen’s Day dates to medieval times and may have influenced the practice of giving Christmas boxes on that day, but it is not the direct source of the modern term or practice.

Today, Boxing Day is chiefly celebrated by shopping at post-holiday sales. (A practice that is also celebrated in the U. S., although the term Boxing Day isn’t used there.)


Sources:

Oxford English Dictionary Online, second edition, 1989, s. v. Boxing-day, n.; Christmas-box, n.

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