This post about the British tradition of Boxing Day was first published in 2013. It was part of the Stories Behind Words series. You can find other posts in the series by searching for ‘Stories Behind Words’ in the search box on the blog.
The day after Christmas Day, traditionally known as Boxing Day, is a public holiday in Britain and several other countries (if the 26th December falls on a weekend the holiday is moved to the first or second available weekday). But what does it have to do with boxing?
Actually nothing, if by boxing you mean the sport in which two people attempt to knock each other out. The name refers to the traditional practice of giving gifts to servants and tradesmen to show appreciation for their services throughout the year. The first references to it are found in the 1830s, when it seems that it was the practice to give a box of food and gifts to servants who had worked on Christmas Day. With the decline of domestic service this custom was transmuted into annual gifts of money to people such as postmen and dustmen, though the practice seems to be becoming ever less common.
In the church calendar 26th December is St Stephen’s Day (the popular carol Good King Wenceslas is set on this day, the ‘feast of Stephen’). In Ireland the festival is celebrated under this name, but in Irish it is called the Day of the Wren. Traditionally wrens would be caught and taken from door to door by groups of singers and dancers dressed in old clothes and wearing straw hats. Nowadays the actual wrens have been replaced by fake birds and the custom is maintained in just a few places.
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