Boxing Day: A history of giving back during the holidays

By Morgan Barker

During the holidays, many people think of giving back to their communities and organizations. It’s a practice that goes far back through history — notably, the tradition of Boxing Day on Dec. 26.

“The tradition of taking the day after Christmas to give gifts to those less fortunate is one that dates back to medieval England,” said Taylor Stoermer, research historian for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Boxing Day originates in several old traditions. “Many people might recall that ‘good King Wenceslas’ went out on the Feast of St. Stephen to brighten a peasant’s day. The Church of England also did and still does collect contributions for the poor during the liturgical season leading to Christmas, called Advent,” Stoermer said.

The English tradition of Boxing Day is probably the most well-known, though it didn’t appear in English culture until well into the 1800s, according to Stoermer.

“This is the practice of giving gifts of money to servants in boxes on the day after Christmas,” said Stoermer. “It’s really part of the same spirit and takes a similar form regardless of which practice you’re talking about.”

On Boxing Day in Williamsburg, residents took time to thank their servants by presenting them with special boxes; which led to the term Boxing Day. “The people of Williamsburg also gave gifts of money to household slaves and other enslaved men and women,” Stoermer said.

The boxes given to servants were terracotta with a slot for inserting coins. The boxes were broken to reveal the gifts, which often included change or decorative items.

Today, cultures across the globe observe Boxing Day. “Almost every English-speaking culture and country observes Boxing Say in some way, shape or form. It is an official holiday in many nations in the British Empire, now called the Commonwealth of Nations, from the UK to New Zealand and Australia, even Hong Kong and many Caribbean nations,” Stoermer said.

Boxing Day also kicks off the 12 days of Christmas, which culminate in Twelfth Night on Jan. 6.  In various countries, it’s a period of parties, shopping, fox-hunting and even watching soccer, Stoermer said.

Boxing Day, however, faded out of favor in the United States. “The 19th-century reticence on this side of the Atlantic to anything un-American explains much of it,” said Stoermer, meaning that it was too closely associated with older British traditions. “In the Chesapeake region today, however, in certain pockets, it is still observed, primarily through fox hunting.”

Morgan Barker is a Williamsburg-based writer. 

Learn more:

Story, photos: “Williamsburg’s Long Christmas”

Podcast: 18th-Century Dance Customs”

Visit: The Boxing Day Regency Dinner


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