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Christmas presents and a sign saying '26 December'

Why is December 26th called Boxing Day?


When is Boxing Day?

Of the regular nine public holidays enjoyed in the UK, one of them stands out of the crowd: Boxing Day that takes places on the 25th December. Maybe because of its proximity to Christmas Day, most of us are just happy to enjoy the aftermath of the previous days’ festivities without too much in the way of curiosity. What’s with all the ‘boxing’ stuff anyway?

Was 26th December always Boxing Day?

Up until it became a public holiday in 1871, Boxing Day, in the UK, was more commonly known as St Stephen’s Day or the Feast of St Stephen and still is in most of Europe. But confusingly, there is also another St Stephen’s Day with no connection to the one formally acknowledged on 26th December.

A tale of two St Stephens

St Stephen of Hungary was the first king of Hungary, renowned for converting the Magyar people to Christianity. So, that's the St Stephen celebrated in Hungary on 20th August each year, and the one celebrated in the UK is more familiar to us all as the name of the feast in the carol 'Good King Wenceslas'.

St Stephen’s Day

The Stephen in question was a Christian convert with a Grecian Jewish heritage and one of the earliest deacons in the Christian Church. Stephen believed that Christianity supported the teachings of Moses which didn’t go down well with those of the Jewish faith, including a certain Saul of Tarsus, better known as St Paul. Stephen was arrested around 34 AD and stood trial, but before the judge could deliberate, an angry mob dragged Stephen out of the courtroom, and he was stoned to death.

For the record (Good King) Wenceslas wasn’t a King, he was the Duke of Bohemia who converted to Christianity. Aged just 28, he was assassinated by his younger brother, Boleslaus, on 28th September 935 AD. Wenceslas was later canonised, and his Saint’s Day on 28th September is even a public holiday in the Czech Republic.

What has St Stephen to do with Boxing Day?

St Stephen was a deacon. Broadly speaking, the deacon is the lowest rank of the Christian ministry (after the priest and bishop) and, traditionally, oversaw the more practical, hands-on concerns of the church community, which included helping those in need. From the dark ages onwards, the deacon was on hand to ensure the contents of the collection plate were divided into alms boxes, and then, on St Stephen’s Day, these boxes were distributed among the poor.

The Christmas Box

Boxing Day appears to be a culmination of a series of related events, rather than one singular entity. It arguably stems from the giving of boxed alms on St Stephens Day and the later tradition of the wealthy giving gifts to their servants on the day after Christmas.

For those in servitude, St Stephen’s Day may have been the only day off that they had to visit their families, so it was common to pack them off with a few boxed treats, or leftovers, from the Christmas table. Toward the end of the 18th century, as the middle classes became more established, this gesture of goodwill would be afforded to any number of domestic tradespeople. By the 1830s, St Stephen's Day was more commonly referred to as Boxing Day.

Boxing Day: The National Day off

Boxing Day began to become synonymous with outdoor activities, anything from an innocent stroll around the park to an organised foxhunt. However, one sport more than any other came to define Boxing Day. The Boxing Day football match, played in 1860, between local rivals Sheffield FC and Hallam FC, is the world’s oldest derby match.

Football, of course, is now the highest profile sport of 26th December, a tradition that may have been augmented by soldiers returning from the trenches of the first world war. When professional football returned to the UK in 1919, Boxing Day football had its muddy boots well and truly under the festive table.

Boxing Day Hunt
Boxing Day Meet of the Blencathra Foxhounds in Keswick, 1962 | CC BY 2.0

St Stephen, the patron

St Stephen is the patron saint of horses, though whether that accounts for all the horseracing on Boxing Day isn’t entirely clear. St Stephen is also the patron saint of bricklayers and, while we’re about it, he is often identifiable in Italian Renaissance paintings with a martyr’s palm frond and an assortment of stones around his person.

Boxing Day facts

  • Boxing Day is observed in the United Kingdom, Canada, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and some other Commonwealth nations. St Stephen’s Day is an official public holiday in Austria, Balearic Islands, Catalonia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Montenegro, Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Sweden, Finland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Poland.
  • In Ireland, Boxing Day is sometimes called Wren Day. While it might sound quaint, the etymology of the name stems from the grim practice of children killing a wren and asking for money in exchange for the bird’s feathers, which was believed to bring luck.
  • Famous people born on Boxing Day include the founding member of Metallica, Lars Ulrich, the father of the computer, Charles Babbage, and the founding father of the People's Republic of China, Mao Zedong.
  • The words to the carol Good King Wenceslas were written by John Mason Neale in 1853, but the music, popular in the 14th century, was originally from a song about spring.