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What is Boxing Day?

On a typical American calendar, the day after Christmas is clearly marked with Boxing Day, typically with Canada written in parenthesis to explain that this holiday is not celebrated in the United States. About 99% of Americans believe that this is a holiday set aside for some type of boxing recognition (such as hosting some huge annual boxing tournament or the like) or perhaps a day that everything is boxed up, returned or put away, or discreetly tossed in the trash.

I was certainly one of those Americans until recently, when Boxing Day was explained to me in detail. It has nothing to do with two men slugging it out in a ring in front of a boisterous crowd. There are some disputed origins of the holiday, and many theories to its origins. Most people simply accept that it is a day to recognize those who have helped throughout the year.

Boxing Day may have actually begun in the Middle Ages, sort of a Christmas Day for the servants who had been expected to work for their employers on Christmas Day. After fulfilling their work obligations, they received the following day off to be with their families and friends and enjoy their own holiday.

Prior to leaving their residence of servitude, the servants were presented with gift boxes by their employers in a gesture of gratitude for their perpetual faithfulness. And thus, Boxing Day was born. Others cite that the servants were sent with boxed leftover of Christmas Dinner, while others claim the servants came to their employers’ home on December 26th carrying a box and their employer would fill it with coins and food and small gifts.

There is one totally abstract theory out there that during medieval times, a wren was captured and placed in a box. With the wren secure a young boy would take the wren from house to house in the village so that those who lived within the village could ask the wren if they would have a good harvest that year. Despite its confusing origins, Boxing Day still holds its place on the calendar, and has nothing to do with two men slugging it out mercilessly inside a roped off cube.

Boxing Day is widely celebrated throughout Canada, England, and English colonies. It is the equivalent to the American legal holidays, which the English and Canadians call Banking holidays. Banking holidays simply mean that banks, along government offices, schools, and the post office are closed, although not all business are closed for Boxing Day.

The Feast of St. Stephen shares the spotlight with Boxing Day. St. Stephen was a martyr, one of the original seven deacons associated with the Christian Church. The original seven deacons had been ordained by the Apostles to administer care to widows, the elderly, the poor, and the downtrodden or mentally ill. There is some speculation that it is no accident that these two days fall on the same date, as the servants were entitled to a day off, it is quite possible that they were given the day that most closely fell near Christmas that was already considered a holiday. Again, this is pure speculation.

There is the interesting link between Boxing Day and the Feast of St. Stephen that many historians attribute to the relieving of the servants. Historically speaking, December 26th is the day that the poor boxes in the churches have been opened and their contents distributed amongst the poor. Very few historians credit Boxing Day’s origins with the poor box distribution, though there are a few historians that believe this is the case.

Boxing Day has survived all this time, although the notion of employing servants has become much more extinct. While some employ people to tend their gardens and clean their homes, we typically no longer employ “servants.” The holiday tradition has now extended to people who hold positions of public service, such as the mail carrier, trades people, doormen, law enforcement and fire fighters, and anyone else who has been helpful throughout the year.

The United Kingdom has rendered Boxing Day of high enough importance that the celebration has begun to take on a week long duration, although many people attribute this to this high retail sales that can be obtained. In most countries that celebrate Boxing Day, the sales and the retail capabilities are really quite profitable for retailers.

Boxing Day, regardless of its origin or its sales or its retail potential, is a day that is happily designated for those who consistently use their talents for the assistance of those around them. It is a day that people are reminded to simply say, “Thank you.”

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