The boxing which takes place on Boxing Day has nothing to do with the prize-fighting ring. Christmas boxing originated in England, where the word “boxing” refers to the distribution of small gifts of money. Boxing Day, which fallson December 26, is a holiday in England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Bahamas (see Jonkonnu), and other nations with past or present ties to the United Kingdom.
Origins and Development
Some writers believe that boxing can be traced back to the Middle Ages. They note that parish priests of that era customarily opened up the church alms box on December 26, St. Stephen’s Day. Then the priests distributed the coinsit contained to the needy. Perhaps this custom attached itself to St. Stephen’s Day because the saint’s role in the Christian community of which he was a member was to ensure the fair distribution of goods. In any case, this practice gave rise to the use of the term “box” to denote a small gift of money or a gratuity. In Scotland these tips were called“hand sels” and were given on Handsel Monday, that is, the first Monday of the new year.
By the early seventeenth century, the Church’s St. Stephen’s Day tradition had inspired working people to adopt thecustom of saving whatever tips they had been given throughout the year in clay boxes which they broke open onDecember 26. By the late seventeenth century they began to solicit tips from all those who had enjoyed their servicesduring the year. They collected the last of these “boxes” on December 26, after which they broke open thesecontainers and used the money to buy Christmas treats. In the nineteenth century many bought tickets to pantomimeshows, which in those days usually opened on December 26. By the nineteenth century the custom of boxing had socolored the character of the day that many people began refer to December 26 as Boxing Day rather than St.Stephen’s Day. Parliament declared Boxing Day a public holiday in 1871.
By the eighteenth century middle- and upper-middle-class people were complaining about the increasing numbers oftradesmen who petitioned them for Christmas boxes. By mid-century some families were paying up to thirty pounds inthese annual tips. Naturally, one’s employees and domestic servants received some extra financial consideration atChristmas time. In addition to one’s own workers, however, a small horde of neighborhood service providers might turnup at one’s door on the twenty-sixth of December asking for a Christmas box. These included dustmen, lamplighters,postmen, errand-runners, watchmen, bell ringers, chimneysweeps, sextons (church custodians), turncocks (men whomaintained the water pipes), and others. What’s more, shop assistants, tradesmen, and their apprentices oftenexpected a Christmas box from their customers. In 1710, English author Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote, “By theLord Harry, I shall be undone here with Christmas boxes. The rogues of the coffee-house have raised their tax, everyone giving a crown, and I gave mine for shame, besides a great many halfcrowns to great men’s porters” (Hutton,1996, 23).
At one point, the citizens of Buckinghamshire, England, raised the practice of boxing to new heights. Residents ofsome villages in the region claimed the right to a free meal at the local rectory on St. Stephen’s Day. Since the rectorshad to pay for the meal out of their own pockets, they naturally began to resist this custom, know as “Stephening.” It istold that one year a rector from the village of Drayton Beauchamp locked himself in the rectory on December 26 andrefused to let the housekeeper answer the many knocks at the door. In this manner he thought to escape doling outthe free meal of bread, cheese, and ale demanded by the town’s residents. When the townspeople realized what wasgoing on, however, they broke into the building and helped themselves to a meal that completely emptied his larders.In 1834 the Charity Commission, finding no legal or traditional entitlement to this yearly looting, put an end to thecustom.
By the late nineteenth century Christmas boxing began to diminish. This decline continued into the twentieth century,and, slowly, the Christmas box disappeared from the ranks of English seasonal customs. The English still give a fewtips at Christmas time, but they are no longer specifically associated with Boxing Day. In fact, some people now thinkof Boxing Day as the day to throw out the boxes their Christmas gifts came in.
Chambers, Robert. “December 26 – Christmas-Boxes.” In his The Book ofDays. Volume 2. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit,Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Hadfield, Miles, and John Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, Mass.: Little,Brown and Company, 1961. Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976.Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. MacDonald, Margaret Read,ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs andTraditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York:Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.