The presents have been opened, the food eaten, and the crackers pulled; Christmas Day is over for another year, and in America, it’s back to work again. But not so in the UK and some Commonwealth countries like Canada. There, the day after Christmas is called Boxing Day; it’s also a holiday; and it’s one that Americans might want to adopt, to keep the Christmas cheer going after the wrapping paper has been cleared away.
So Why is December 26 Called Boxing Day?
Contrary to popular rumors, it’s not called Boxing Day because that’s the day you clear away all the boxes that your Christmas presents came in, nor has it got anything to do with martial sports.
The Oxford English Dictionary has traced the first known mention of ‘Boxing Day’ to appear in print back to 1833. Four years later, Charles Dickens used it in his book The Pickwick Papers, popularizing it, along with many other Victorian traditions (it’s from Dickens that we get imagery of Londoners skating on the Thames at Christmas, and caroling in the snow).
In actual fact, no one is 100 percent sure how the name arose, but there are two leading theories, both of which have to do with charity.
The first suggests that over the festive season, people put charity money in alms boxes in their local church for the poor people of the parish. Those boxes were opened on the day after Christmas and the money inside was distributed to the poor.
The other leading theory derives from the fact that servants in stately homes were expected to work on Christmas Day, serving up a feast for the Lords and Ladies of the house and keeping everything looking beautiful and festive. It is said that on the following day, their employers would give them Christmas-boxes full of treats to show their thanks. The servants would then have the day off to go home and share the treats with their families; hence, Boxing Day.
What is known is that the tradition spread from England throughout the Commonwealth, which is why countries like Canada and Australia celebrate it, but America, which had already split from England by the time it was popularized, does not.
Boxing Day Was Originally a Day for Charity
Whether because of the alms boxes, or because rich landowners gave gifts to their servants (or both!), it seems certain, then, that the day was originally closely associated with charitable giving.
You may recall that in the hymn Good King Wenceslas, we’re told that the King looked out “on the feast of Stephen.” The King spots a poor man gathering fuel, and goes out into the snow to invite the man into his home for warmth and food. The hymn concludes: “ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.” In the church calendar, St Stephen’s Day, named for the first martyr whose story is told in the Book of Acts, is none other than December 26.
Sadly, over the years the charitable aspect of Boxing Day has given way – like Christmas itself – to the rise of consumerism. In England, it’s now a day to grab a bargain in the sales, while Canadians have adopted it as a day of individualistic self-indulgence, away from the rest of the family.
But that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.
Put the Charity Back Into Christmas Cheer
With all the excitement of Christmas Day and the presents it brings behind us until next year, why not start a new family tradition and return the act of charitable giving back to December 26?
Demonstrating charity and a generous spirit is a wonderful way to teach children the value of gratitude. Encourage your children to make way for their new toys by gathering up some old ones they no longer play with, and donating them to your local goodwill, or even a local family in need.
Or why not make December 26 an annual day for volunteering as a family? Some charities such as animal shelters and volunteer farms welcome families who want to volunteer together. Alternatively, the charity VolunteerMatch suggests a number of ways you can give your time from home, including
- fostering a homeless pet
- making cards to brighten up a veteran’s or elderly person’s day
- Quilting, knitting or crocheting items such as blankets, scarfs and hats to help keep a person in need warm in winter
- Doing a sponsored walk, run, swim, or cycle
- Host a toy drive
- Host a food drive
- Connect with a senior citizen, either a friend, neighbor, or someone in the local community
Whatever you decide to do, you’ll be keeping the spirit of Christmas cheer alive beyond Christmas Day and into the New Year.