HISTORY OF BOXING DAY AND THE FEAST OF ST STEPHEN
While unfamiliar to many Americans, Boxing Day is a well-known holiday among the countries of the former British Commonwealth. It is celebrated on December 26 as a public holiday in the UK, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia… and even Massachusetts, though it’s not a public holiday in the US.
Though some believe it has to do with the need to dispose of empty boxes on the day following Christmas, it has nothing to do with that, nor has it anything to do with pugilistic fisticuffs. It is the second day of Christmastide, and some European countries celebrate it as “Second Christmas Day,” but there’s more.
St. Stephen’s Day
In Britain, Boxing Day is also known as the Christian feast day, St. Stephen’s Day. Stephen,
“a man possessing great wisdom and full of the Spirit,”
was the first Christian martyr, as recorded in Chapter 7 of the Book of the Acts of The Apostles in the Bible. He was one of the first deacons or ministers of the early church, serving table to the Hellenistic (primarily Greek-speaking) widows of the church who were being neglected.
Some eight hundred years ago in the UK, Boxing Day was when gifts were given to the service classes. The popular 1847 Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslas of Bohemia (now Czechia), back in the 10th century, talks about giving gifts to a poor man on “the Feast of Stephen.” The folk history around this holiday from the Middle Ages tells how boxes of food or fruit were given by the more materially blessed to the servants the day after Christmas, as these servants would attend to their master on Christmas Day.
You’ve no doubt heard the song:
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even…
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye, who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.
The Lord of the Manor might present various goods or cash in boxes to members of the extended household. The term “Christmas-box” is traced to the 17th century. Alternately, the term is understood as the alms-boxes in some churches that were opened during this season following Christmas Day.
In some countries of the British Commonwealth in modern times, Boxing Day is a bank holiday and a day of post-Christmas shopping sales, sometimes compared to the American Black Friday.
It is also an opportunity for sporting championship events — like:
- Horse racing
- Fox hunting
- Ice hockey
- English Channel “Polar Bear Plunge”
- British theatre Christmas plays known as “Pantomimes” or pantos
- British Premier League football (soccer) “fixtures” play seven games that day after a six-week absence because of the 2022 World Cup being played in Qatar.
— but not usually pugilistic fisticuffs.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian