Some believe that it is traditionally a day when boxes of gifts are given to helpers, merchants, and the poor. As the service of helping hands (servants) was required by their employers for Christmas Day celebrations, they were allowed a day off on 26 December for their own observance of the holiday. They used to receive special gifts from their owners on that day. Gifts given to the poor and helping hands were called ‘Christmas boxes’; Hence the name Boxing Day. The practice of giving bonuses to service workers has continued, although it is now often done before rather than on Christmas Day.
Some believe that it derives its name from the fact that donation boxes placed in churches for the collection of donations on Christmas Day were traditionally opened the following day. Clergy members would then distribute the contents of the boxes among the poor and needy. Some churches still open these boxes on Boxing Day, which is also the feast day of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr known for his acts of charity.
Interestingly, the earliest record of these boxed gifts dates back to 1663. English MP Samuel Pepys wrote in an entry in his diary that he sent a coachman and messenger to his shoemaker to deliver a box of ‘something for Christmas to the boys’. With the money to cover your bills.
The name also refers to a maritime tradition. Ships, while sailing, carried a sealed box with money for good luck. If the journey was successful, the box was given to a priest to be opened at Christmas and the money given to the poor.
There is also a reference to the Romans first bringing to Britain the idea of collecting money in boxes for betting games played during their winter festivals.
In the Netherlands, some collection boxes made of crude pottery were shaped like pigs. This is probably where we get the term ‘piggy bank’.
There are other stories about the name. It is believed that in the 10th century, the day after Christmas, the Duke of Bohemia was surveying his land when he saw a poor man trying to gather firewood in a blizzard. He was so impressed that he went to the person’s house with a box of food, wine and other items.
Whatever the theory, almost all revolve around the theme of charity.
The custom of giving charity on 26 December has changed especially as these gifts and donations are now mostly given in the week before Christmas. But the name ‘Boxing Day’ persists even today.
In Canada and other Commonwealth countries, many families usually wait until Boxing Day to open their gift boxes.