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 falls on 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 coins it 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 “handsels” 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 the custom of saving whatever tips they had been given throughout the year in clay boxes which they broke open on December 26. By the late seventeenth century they began to solicit tips from all those who had enjoyed their services during the year. They collected the last of these “boxes” on December 26, after which they broke open these containers and used the money to buy Christmas treats. In the nine-teenth century many bought tickets to PANTOMIME shows, which in those days usually opened on December 26. By the nineteenth century the custom of boxing had so colored 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 of tradesmen who petitioned them for Christmas boxes. By mid-century some families were paying up to thirty pounds in these annual tips. Naturally, one’s employees and domestic servants received some extra financial consideration at Christmas time. In addition to one’s own workers, however, a small horde of neighborhood service providers might turn up 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 who maintained the water pipes), and others. What’s more, shop assistants, tradesmen, and their apprentices often expected a Christmas box from their customers. In 1710, English author Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote, “By the Lord Harry, I shall be undone here with Christmas boxes. The rogues of the coffee-house have raised their tax, every one giving a crown, and I gave mine for shame, besides a great many half-crowns 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 of some villages in the region claimed the right to a free meal at the local rectory on St. Stephen’s Day. Since the rectors had to pay for the meal out of their own pockets, they naturally began to resist this custom, know as “Stephening.” It is told that one year a rector from the village of Drayton Beauchamp locked himself in the rectory on December 26 and refused to let the housekeeper answer the many knocks at the door. In this manner he thought to escape doling out the free meal of bread, cheese, and ale demanded by the town’s residents. When the townspeople realized what was going 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 the custom.
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 cus-toms. The English still give a few tips at Christmas time, but they are no longer specifically associated with Boxing Day. In fact, some people now think of Boxing Day as the day to throw out the boxes their Christmas gifts came in.