The Story of Boxing Day
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.