OED gives the definition and a quote from 1833 as the earliest reference as:

The first week-day after Christmas-day, observed as a holiday on which post-men, errand-boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas-box. So also Boxing-night, Boxing-time.

1833 in A. Mathews Mem. C. Mathews (1839) IV. viii. 173   To the completion of his dismay, he arrives in London on boxing-day.

According the Etymonline, it goes back as early as 1809:

1809, "first weekday after Christmas," on which postmen and others expect to receive a Christmas present, originally in reference to the custom of distributing the contents of the Christmas box, which was placed in the church for charity collections. See box (n.1). The custom is older than the phrase

However, most of the other sources say that the origin is unclear and list several possible theories.

Wikipedia states that the exact etymology of the term "boxing day" is unclear. There are several competing theories, none of which is definitive. The European tradition, which has long included giving money and other gifts to those who were needy and in service positions, has been dated to the Middle Ages, but the exact origin is unknown. It is believed to be in reference to the Alms Box placed in places of worship to collect donations to the poor.

Britishfood.about.com lists four possible origins and says that it might be related to all of them:

  • A ‘Christmas Box’ in Britain is a name for a Christmas present.
  • Boxing Day was a day off for servants and when they received a ‘Christmas Box’ from the master. The servants would also go home to give ‘Christmas Boxes’ to their families.
  • A box to collect money for the poor was placed in Churches on Christmas day then opened the next day.
  • Great sailing ships when setting sail would have a sealed box containing money on board for good luck.If the voyage were a success the box was given to a priest, opened at Christmas and the contents given to the poor.

Finally, snopes.com debunks most of the theories and gives the following origin as the best bet:

The holiday's roots can be traced to Britain, where Boxing Day is also known as St. Stephen's Day. Reduced to the simplest essence, its origins are found in a long-ago practice of giving cash or durable goods to those of the lower classes. Gifts among equals were exchanged on or before Christmas Day, but beneficences to those less fortunate were bestowed the day after.

And that's about as much as anyone can definitively say about its origin because once you step beyond that point, it's straight into the quagmire of debated claims and dueling folklorists. Which, by the way, is what we're about to muddy our boots with.

Well, it looks like I already answered the question but different sources say different things. I trust the users on this site who have advanced searching skills and can find a definitive answer.

What is the exact origin of this phrase? Can we find a better answer based on the first usages of this phrase?

  • 3
    The OED is the most authoritative source. And cites the most authoritative sources. Why wish for more? Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 22:11
  • 2
    @JohnLawler: This question and the answers can be a good reference on EL&U. Also, a possible answer can be expanding what OED says.
    – ermanen
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 22:22
  • 1
    @JohnLawler And the Etymonline cite goes back further, as do Josh61's cites .
    – bib
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 2:49
  • Boxing day is not due to the pugilistic sport but to the use of boxes after christmas day. Employees of shops re-boxing goods that were out of their boxes, either for display or for sale, during the pre-Christmas season. The concept was reinforced by modern consumerism with the sight of boxes being left on the curb for garbage collection, the day after Christmas.As well as the prevalence of consumers returning the goods they had bought, or had "borrowed", and those goods had to be placed back into their boxes. Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 7:32
  • "Christmas boxes" is how one would then say "Christmas hampers" or "Christmas gift-boxes". It's just that simple.
    – Fattie
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 17:04

2 Answers 2


A definitive answer appears hard to give, anyway to your research I'd add the information offered by The Phrase Finder which has a different story to tell linked to 'pugilism'. Everything considered, to me the tradition to give Christmas boxes with gifts to tradespeople and servants appears to be the most plausible:

  • 'Christmas boxes' were originally literally earthenware boxes. In mediaeval England these boxes were used by the poor (servants, apprentices etc.) to save money throughout the year. At Christmas the boxes were broken open and the savings shared to fund Christmas festivities. This meaning of 'Christmas box' dates back to at least the early 17th century. The boxes were known in France as tirelire and are referred to in Randle Cotgrave's A Dictionarie of the French and English tongues, 1611:

  • "Tirelire, a Christmas box; a box having a cleft on the lid, or in the side, for money to enter it; used in France by begging Fryers, and here by Butlers, and Prentices, etc."

  • In a similar tradition, which is almost as old as the above and which is the one that has stayed with us until the present day, Christmas boxes are gifts, usually money, given to tradespeople or others who have rendered some service throughout the year but who aren't normally paid directly by the donor - for example, office cleaners, milkmen etc.

  • So, why is Boxing Day so called? Sporting fixtures, which used regularly to include boxing, have taken place over the holiday season for centuries. The view that Boxing Day was a day for pugilism gets some support via the earliest reference to the name that I can find, which is in The Sporting Magazine, Volume 25, 1805:

  • On boxing-day, Dec. 26, a numerous assemblage of the holiday folk were amused by a hard fought battle, in St. Pancras-fields. This fight was one that afforded plenty of diversion to several pugilists and admirers of the art present.

  • Nevertheless, the link to boxing in that citation is purely co-incidental and the origin of the name is the giving of 'Christmas box' gifts to tradespeople, which traditionally took place not on Christmas Day but on the first subsequent working day.

This article of TIME try to shed some light on its origin:

  • The best clue to Boxing Day's origins can be found in the song "Good King Wenceslas." According to the Christmas carol, Wenceslas, who was Duke of Bohemia in the early 10th century, was surveying his land on St. Stephen's Day — Dec. 26 — when he saw a poor man gathering wood in the middle of a snowstorm. Moved, the 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 — hence the canned-food drives and Salvation Army Santas that pepper our neighborhoods during the winter — but King Wenceslas' good deed came the day after Christmas, when the English poor received most of their charity.

  • King Wenceslas didn't start Boxing Day, but the Church of England might have. During Advent, Anglican parishes displayed a box into which churchgoers put their monetary donations. On the day after Christmas, the boxes were broken open and their contents distributed among the poor, thus giving rise to the term Boxing Day. Maybe.

  • But wait: there's another possible story about the holiday's origin. The day after Christmas was also the traditional day on which the aristocracy distributed presents (boxes) to servants and employees — a sort of institutionalized Christmas-bonus party. The servants returned home, opened their boxes and had a second Christmas on what became known as Boxing Day.

  • So which version is correct? Well, both. Or neither. No one, it seems, is really sure. Both the church boxes and the servant presents definitely existed, although historians disagree on which practice inspired the holiday.

Early citation of 1809:

  • from page 321] ... Never alter your dress at this time [the Christmas holidays and boxing- day], but wear the worst of every thing you have; (from Le Beau Monde, or Literary and Fashionable Magazine, 1806-1810Volume 4, No. 30 For January, 1809)

Previous Issue Next Issue

  • @ermanen - Merry Christmas to you!!:))
    – user66974
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 23:33

For any non-native speakers reading,

The simple answer is it has nothing to do with "boxing" (the sport).

It is simply a reference to "boxes" of presents.

It seems that "Christmas boxes" - rather as we might now say "Christmas hampers" - were given out (perhaps to servants) on the day after Christmas.

That's all there is to it.

In a sense, you could say that a modern translation is "Hamper day" ... it's simply a reference to Christmas "boxes" (gifts, presents).


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.