The day after Christmas Day is celebrated as Boxing Day throughout the English-speaking Caribbean and in other Commonwealth countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
The origins of today’s holiday can be traced to Britain, where Boxing Day is also known as St Stephen’s Day.
St Stephen was martyred in Jerusalem about the year 35. He is considered both the first Christian martyr (the protomartyr) and one of the first deacons of the Christian Church.
Stephen was a Jew. The New Testament does not give us the circumstances of his conversion. It would seem, however, that soon after the death of the Messiah he rose to a position of prominence among the Christians of Jerusalem.
The earliest mention of Stephen is when he is listed among the seven men chosen to supervise the public tables. Stephen, already a leader, began to point out that, according to the Master, the old law had been superseded. It was talk of this sort, carried by hearsay and rumour about the city, and often misquoted, intentionally or not, that was to draw down upon Stephen the wrath of the Jewish priestly class.
The elders and the scribes were stirred up and brought him before the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish tribunal, which had authority in both civil and religious matters. False witnesses made their accusations; Stephen defended himself ably, reviewing the long spiritual history of his people.
The account is that the crowd could contain their anger no longer. They rushed upon Stephen, drove him outside the city to the place appointed, and stoned him. At this time Jewish law permitted the death penalty by stoning for blasphemy. Stephen, full of “grace and fortitude” to the very end, met the great test without flinching, praying the Lord to receive his spirit and not to lay this sin against the people. So perished the first martyr, his dying breath spent in prayer for those who killed him. Among those present at the scene and approving of the penalty meted out to Stephen was a young Jew named Saul, the future Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles: his own conversion to Christianity was to take place within a few short months
There is general agreement that on this religious feast day, wealthy members of British society would give presents to the less fortunate.
Many years ago, on the day after Christmas, servants in Britain carried boxes to their masters when they arrived for the day’s work. It was a tradition that on this day all employers would put coins in the boxes as a special end-of-the-year gift.
In a closely-related version of this explanation, apprentices and servants would on that day get to smash open small earthenware boxes left for them by their masters. These boxes would house small sums of money specifically left for them.
Under this theory, the boxes are an early form of Christmas bonus, something employees see as their entitlement.
Boxes in churches for seasonal donations to the needy were opened on Christmas Day, and the contents distributed by the clergy the following day. The contents of this alms box originated with the ordinary folks in the parish who were under no direct obligation to provide anything at all and were certainly not tied to the recipients by an employer/employee relationship. In this case, the “box” in “Boxing Day” comes from that one gigantic lockbox the donations were left in.
The one thread common to all these Boxing Day accounts is the theme of one-way provision to those not inhabiting the same social level. Equals exchanged gifts on Christmas Day or before, but lessers received their “boxes” on the day after.
In Trinidad and Tobago, Boxing Day is a public holiday which in recent years has served as a bridge between Christmas celebrations and the Carnival season. In fact, Carnival-style fetes are among the major event of the day.