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Why is it called Boxing Day? And why is it an annual shopping event?

December 20, 2023

A Tenth Century Illustration of Emma of Bohemia and Saint Wenceslaus

No one knows exactly how December 26 came to be called Boxing Day. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was first used in print in 1833, four years before Charles Dickens published it in The Pinwick Papers. Whoever it was who dreamed up the name ‘Boxing’ Day, they were likely thinking of the tradition of giving to the poor on St. Stephen’s Day.

Historically, in the Western Church, December 26 is St. Stephen’s Day (aka the Feast of Saint Stephen aka the Second Day of Christmas), which celebrates the first Christian martyr. Saint Stephen was canonized for his service to the poor, but was stoned to death in 36AD. In various parts of Europe, he has been remembered in different ways, but many involve giving gifts to the poor, or visiting others.

By the nineteenth century, December 26 was becoming known as Boxing Day in Britain, which incorporated many of the traditions of St. Stephen’s Day. John Mason Neale wrote the Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslas, which brings these traditions together, as it tells the story of Saint Wenceslaus. The actual historical figure was a Duke of Bohemia (now Czech Republic, 907-935). In the Christmas carol (which is not necessarily historical) he goes on a winter journey to give a peasant alms for the Feast of Stephen (December 26). Struggling through the stormy weather, his page is ready to give up, but Wenceslas inspires him to continue. The hymn concludes with the moral “Ye, who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.” This St. Stephen’s Day tradition of visiting and giving to the poor, became an important part of Boxing Day.

Traditionally, British elites would give Christmas boxes, which might contain small gifts, money or leftovers from Christmas dinner, to their servants or employees, many of whom would have to work on December 25, as they helped their lord celebrate Christmas. While Christmas is laborious today, everything was that much harder before the advent of modern conveniences, hence the need for a separate day for the labourers to have their own holiday. Today this practice of distributing Christmas boxes is carried on in the form of a holiday bonus.

December 26 was the also the day that clerics would distribute the funds from alms boxes to the poor. During the advent season, parishioners would be asked to make donations for the poor, which were customarily distributed on St. Stephen’s Day. It is not clear, whether the ‘box’ in Boxing Day is the alms box or the Christmas box, but the holiday did grow out of the St. Stephen’s Day tradition of giving to the poor on December 26.

In the twentieth century, Boxing Day (or Boxing Week) was transformed into one of the biggest shopping events of the year—though it was not legal to open a store on Boxing Day in Ontario until 1996. Despite laws requiring stores to close, it was still one of the busiest shopping days of the year. In the 1980s, some retailers risked fines of $10,000 to open, believing that the flood of business they would receive was worth it, as customers flocked expecting to buy deeply discounted goods after Christmas. Starting around 2005, Black Friday came to Canada, and has since supplanted Boxing Day as the biggest shopping day for bargain hunters. As society has long since cast aside the class consciousness of Victorian Britain, Boxing Day is no longer about the poor and servants receiving the charity from superiors, its about ordinary people taking advantage of the (carefully calculated) bargains from multinational corporations. But Boxing Day still is for many people, a more relaxed, second day of Christmas.

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