Q From Burt Rubin; a related question came from Keith Denham: As an American, I’ve always wondered about the origin of the term Boxing Day.
A Let me first explain that in Britain Boxing Day is the day after Christmas Day, 26 December, a public holiday that is more correctly called St Stephen’s Day. (Strictly, the public holiday is the first working day after Christmas Day, but the name Boxing Day is always reserved for the 26th.)
We have to go back to the early seventeenth century to find the basis for the name. The term Christmas box appeared about then for an earthenware box, something like a piggy bank, which apprentices took around at Christmas to collect money. When it was full, or the round complete, the box was broken and the money distributed among the company. By the eighteenth century, Christmas box had become a figurative term for any seasonal gratuity. I cannot resist quoting the First Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which has a splendid lip-curling, drawing-away-of-skirts, how-awful-these-lower-orders-are description of this sense that suggests James Murray, who compiled the entry, had been importuned once too often:
A present or gratuity given at Christmas: in Great Britain, usually confined to gratuities given to those who are supposed to have a vague claim upon the donor for services rendered to him as one of the general public by whom they are employed and paid, or as a customer of their legal employer; the undefined theory being that as they have done offices for this person, for which he has not directly paid them, some direct acknowledgement is becoming at Christmas. These gratuities have traditionally been asked from householders by letter-carriers, policemen, lamp-lighters, scavengers, butchers’ and bakers’ boys, tradesmen’s carmen, etc, and from tradesmen by the servants of households that deal with them, etc. They are thus practically identical with the Christmas-box collected by apprentices from their masters’ customers, except that the name is now given to the individual donation; and hence, vulgarly and in dialect use it is often equivalent to “Christmas present”.
Some time after the beginning of the nineteenth century, the word box of Christmas box shifted to refer to the day after Christmas day, on which such gratuities were often requested and on which the original Christmas box was taken round. The first recorded use of Boxing Day for the 26th December is in 1833. By 1853 at the latest it had become a scourge that justified Murray’s later acerbic comments, at least to judge from these comments by Charles Manby Smith in his Curiosities of London Life:
We can hardly close these desultory sketches of Christmas-time without some brief allusion to the day after Christmas, which, through every nook and cranny of the great Babel, is known and recognised as “Boxing Day,” — the day consecrated to baksheesh, when nobody, it would almost seem, is too proud to beg, and when everybody who does not beg is expected to play the almoner. “Tie up the knocker — say you’re sick, you are dead,” is the best advice perhaps that could be given in such cases to any man who has a street-door and a knocker upon it.
This custom, seasonal visitors to Britain may be assured, has now died out, though solicitations for Christmas tips continue to some extent, especially from the deliverers of newspapers. Instead, on Boxing Day people now rush to the first post-Christmas sales.