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The Story of Boxing Day

Updated on August 17, 2013

The day after Christmas is known as St. Stephen’s Day, it was named in honour of the first Christian martyr.

In Britain and the Commonwealth countries, however, it is known as Boxing Day. This celebration has nothing to do with prize fighting or boxing -it actually does refer to an actual box.

Traditionally, a box containing a gift or cash was handed to postmen and tradesmen on this day in recognition of the services rendered throughout the year.

Like so many of our customs, this one started in Ancient Rome where people exchange presents during the festival of Saturnalia. The church was unable to get rid of this custom so they gave it a new religious meaning saying that any material gift received has to be used for the spiritual benefit of the donor; to pay for special prayers or Masses offered on their behalf.

For example, before a ship left port a priest would put an empty box on board which was dedicated to the saint under whose protection the ship sailed. As a penance for any misbehaviour, seamen were expected to place contributions in the box, which was opened on the ship’s arrival.

In return for the money collected, the priest then said Mass for the men. It was a kind of early ’Christmas Mass’ and the box into which the offerings had been place become known as the Christ’s Mass Box. The money itself was distributed by the Church among the poor.

The box went on to become a symbol of charity and was given a permanent place in every church sanctuary. It was traditionally opened straight after the morning service on Christmas day. The parish priest then distributed the money it contained among the needy on the following day. So, the day became known as Boxing Day. Most of these boxes were earthenware, in order to discourage thieves because to open the box, you had to break it.

This custom eventually became secularised. At one stage apprentices were sent to call on their master’s clients the day after Christmas with boxes at the ready to collect tips! The boxes have been discarded, but the gifts are expected just as before- and not only by apprentice. Oddly enough any such bonus is still sometimes referred to as a Christmas box.


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    • earthbound1974 profile image

      earthbound1974 4 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

      This is like exchange gifts and thanks for clarifying why it started.

    • Angie Jardine profile image

      Angie Jardine 5 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Thanks for clarifying this, MM … andI did not realise that the US didn’t have Boxing Day until I read the previous comments.

      The Boxing Day sales are, alas, a fixture here as well now which means a shortened holiday for all those who work in retail. The world has spawned a species of constant shoppers.

    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 6 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)

      Having several friends and acquaintances in England, I was aware of Boxing Day. I learned alot more about the holiday after reading your article. Great Hub!

    • Rosemay50 profile image

      Rosemary Sadler 6 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

      This was interesting I always thought it was the lord of the manor giving gifts of money or feed to his servants of the household. So thank you for sharing and o]putting me right.

    • MM Del Rosario profile image

      MM Del Rosario 6 years ago from NSW, Australia

      Hi Guys,

      I am glad i was able to share my knowledge about Boxing day....actually here in Australia, boxing day is the day when all the Post Christmas sale starts....Boxing Day Sale - 50-70% off....People rush to the big shopping mall on this day to get their hands on they could not buy on normal price.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 6 years ago from the short journey

      As with Ardie, the term Boxing Day is very strange to our ears, stirring the imagination in a most unceremonious manner. Thanks for the clarification!

    • bambamnpebbles profile image

      bambamnpebbles 6 years ago from Iowa

      I had no idea. That is awesome!

    • MM Del Rosario profile image

      MM Del Rosario 6 years ago from NSW, Australia

      Hi Ardie,

      Thanks for dropping by, yes, 1 day added to the holidays here in Australia and also this is the day where some of the major department store have a big sale.

    • Ardie profile image

      Sondra 6 years ago from Neverland

      I found this very interesting. Boxing Day is often mentioned in the States and I see it on our calendars...but I never got off my lazy duff to see what it was actually about. Of course I imagined boxers with some glammed-out boxing gloves going at it :) Im glad this popped up on the feed just in time for me to catch it. Thanks for sharing!