The first thing to say about Boxing Day is that its origins have nothing to do with boxing, or with putting used wrapping paper into boxes, or with boxing up all your unwanted presents, or indeed with football, horse racing, hunting, or shopping.
The origins of Boxing Day lie not in sport, but in small acts of kindness.
It is generally accepted that the name derives from the giving of Christmas “boxes”, but the precise nature of those boxes and when they were first dispensed is disputed.
One school of thought argues that the tradition began in churches in the Middle Ages. Parishioners collected money for the poor in alms boxes, and these were opened on the day after Christmas in honour of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose feast day falls on 26 December.
Some suggest the tradition is even older than that, dating back to the Christianised late Roman empire, when similar collections were supposedly made for the poor in honour of St Stephen, but the evidence is sketchy.
As with most things to do with Christmas, it was the Victorians who fleshed out the meaning of Boxing Day. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the term to the 1830s.
As part of this seasonal beneficence, some employers in the Victorian period gave Christmas boxes to their staff. In large households, after serving their employers on Christmas Day, domestic staff were allowed time off on Boxing Day to visit their own families and left clutching Christmas boxes full of leftover food.
What is undeniably true is that the practice developed of people giving Christmas boxes – commonly a small gift or some money – to tradespeople who had provided them with good service in the course of the year. The Victorians may have given the name to Boxing Day, but this tradition predates the 19th century. It was certainly prevalent in 17th-century England, as the entry in Samuel Pepys’ diary for 19 December 1663 attests. “By coach to my shoemaker’s and paid all there,” he reports, “and gave something to the boys’ box against Christmas.”
The tradition of giving Christmas boxes to is now disappearing – a reflection of our modern anonymised society. For better or worse, Christmas really isn’t what it used to be.
Boxing Day is primarily a British tradition, and the UK has exported it to Australia, Canada and New Zealand (in each of which it has become primarily a shopping and sporting day). The term is little used in the US, and 26 December is not usually a holiday. The 26th is a holiday in western Europe, but most countries designate it the “second day of Christmas” rather than Boxing Day.