The simple answer is ‘Nobody knows’.
The name ‘Boxing Day’ seems to have sprung up sometime in the 19th Century, but there are competing theories as to what the name refers to:
Theory 1 – The Christmas Box Theory. The Christmas Box Theory is pretty simple. It runs that Boxing Day was when people like postmen, tradespeople, and errand boys would be given a ‘Christmas Box’ containing assorted goodies, by way of thanks for their service throughout the year. Nowadays we might still leave a box of chocolates or a bottle of wine out for the postie or the binfolk. The ‘Christmas Box’ concept is basically the same, and there is strong evidence of people being given ‘Christmas Boxes’ dating back to the 17th century. The only problem with this theory is that there’s no evidence whatsoever that the boxes would be given out on the day after Christmas. In fact, most historians agree that they’d be given out on the first working day after Christmas – and Boxing Day is not a working day (and hasn’t been for centuries – as Theory 2 will demonstrate!) Perhaps Boxing Day was the day on which the Christmas Boxes was made up?
Theory 2 – The Servants’ Christmas Theory. Nowadays, it’s viewed as reasonable for most people to be able to take Christmas Day off to be with their families. But this has not always been the case. In the not-so-distant past, wealthy people would insist upon their servants working for them on Christmas Day. Servants would spend the 25th December cooking, decorating, cleaning, serving, and generally creating the perfect Christmas Day for their employers. In recompense, servants would be allowed home to see their families on the day after Christmas. They’d head home carrying their boxed-up presents – hence, perhaps, ‘Boxing Day’.
Theory 3 – The Alms of St Stephen Theory. The 26th December is also St Stephen’s Day in Christian tradition. In the years before the Reformation, metal offertory boxes would be placed outside churches on the Feast of St Stephen, for the collection of alms for the poor. Why this should be remembered as ‘Boxing Day’ rather than as ‘Alms Day’ or even as ‘St Stephen’s Day’ is unclear – but far stranger things have happened where half-remembered tradition is concerned!
So, take your pick! Does any one of these theories seem more likely to you than the others? Is the truth perhaps a combination of all or some of the above? Or perhaps there’s another reason entirely for the 26th December’s strange name? Let us know what you think!
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