There are several theories as to the origin of Boxing Day, but in general the tradition has long included the wealthy giving money and other gifts to the poor. The European tradition dates to the Middle Ages, but some claim it dates back even farther to the late Roman/early Christian era when metal boxes were placed outside churches to collect special offerings connected to the Feast of Saint Stephen.
A reference to Boxing Day’s origins appears in the Christmas Carol, “Good King Wenceslas.” Wenceslas, who was Duke of Bohemia in the early 10th century, saw a poor man gathering wood on his land in the middle of a snowstorm on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26. The kind King gathered up surplus food and wine and carried them through the blizzard to the peasant’s door. The alms-giving tradition has always been closely associated with the Christmas season, but King Wenceslas’ good deed came the day after Christmas, when the English poor received most of their charity.
In the United Kingdom, it became customary for tradesmen to collect “Christmas boxes” of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. This is mentioned widely in old literature. The name could also derive from an old English tradition where, in exchange for ensuring that Christmas went well for wealthy landowners, servants were allowed to take the 26th off to visit their families. The employers gave each servant a box containing gifts and bonuses (and sometimes leftover food).
During the Age of Exploration, when great sailing ships set off to discover new land, a Christmas box was seen as a good luck device. It was a small container that priests placed on each ship while still in port. Crewmen, in hope of a safe return, dropped money into the box. It was then sealed and kept on board for the entire voyage. If the ship came home safely, the crew gave the box to the priest in exchange for the saying of a Mass of thanks. The Priest kept the box sealed until Christmas, and then opened it to share the contents with the poor.
An ‘Alms Box’ was placed in every church on Christmas Day around the 1800’s. Worshipers would place a monetary gift for the poor of the parish. These boxes were always opened the day after Christmas.
Enjoy your Boxing Day!