Boxing Day originated as a holiday to give gifts to the poor, today Boxing Day is primarily known as a shopping holiday. It originated in the United Kingdom and is celebrated in a number of countries that previously formed part of the British Empire. Boxing Day is the 27th if the 26th is Christmas Sunday. The attached bank holiday or public holiday may take place either on that day or one or two days later (if necessary to ensure it falls on a weekday). Boxing Day is also concurrent with the Christian holiday Saint Stephen’s Day.

Saint Stephen, Vatican statue

Stephen (Greek: Στέφανος Stéphanos, meaning “wreath, crown” and by extension “reward, honor, renown, fame”, often given as a title rather than as a name; Hebrew: סטפנוס הקדוש, Stephanos HaQadosh; c. 5 – c. 34 AD) traditionally venerated as the protomartyr or first martyr of Christianity was, according to the Acts of the Apostles, a deacon in the early Church at Jerusalem who angered members of various synagogues by his teachings.

At the synagogue Stephen said he saw god and the son of man at his side. The argument centered around how a jewish person can worship. The argument became very heated, Stephen was accused of blasphemy at his trial, he made a speech denouncing the Jewish authorities who were sitting in judgment on him and was then stoned to death. His martyrdom was witnessed and participated by Saul of Tarsus (Mersin), also known as Paul, a Pharisee and Roman citizen who would later become a Christian apostle. A cave in Tarsus is one of a number of places said to be the location of the legend of the Seven Sleepers, common to Christianity and Islam.

The only source for information about Stephen is the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles. Stephen is mentioned in Acts 6 as one of the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews selected to participate in a fairer distribution of welfare to the Greek-speaking widows. The Catholic, Anglican, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox Churches, Lutheran and the Church of the East view Stephen as a saint. Artistic representations often show Stephen with a crown symbolising martyrdom, three stones, martyr’s palm frond, censer, and often holding a miniature church building. Stephen is often shown as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing a deacon’s vestments.

Stephen is first mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as one of seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to poorer members of the community in the early church. According to Orthodox belief, he was the eldest and is therefore called “archdeacon”. As another deacon, Nicholas of Antioch, is specifically stated to have been a convert to Judaism, it may be assumed that Stephen was born Jewish, but nothing more is known about his previous life outside being Greek speaking. In the first century many more people could read Greek than they could Hebrew which was difficult to learn. Greek influence has been present for several centuries.

Roman persecution of Christians continued for centuries. The first, localized Neronian persecution occurred under the emperor Nero (r. 54–68) in Rome. A more general persecution occurred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–180). After a lull, persecution resumed under the emperors Decius (r. 249–251) and Trebonianus Gallus (r. 251–253). The Decian persecution was particularly extensive. The persecution of Emperor Valerian (r. 253–260) ceased with his notable capture by the Sasanian Empire’s Shapur I (r. 240–270) at the Battle of Edessa during the Roman–Persian Wars. His successor Gallienus (r. 253–268) halted the persecutions.

In Rome, citizens were expected to demonstrate their loyalty to Rome by participating in the rites of the state religion which had numerous feast days, processions and offerings throughout the year. Christians simply could not, and so they were seen as belonging to an illicit religion that was anti-social and subversive. The persecution led to a great diaspora as many fled far away lest they be killed in the Colosseum by lions. The Roman appetite for blood sports became ferocious in the centuries after the Colosseum was built. The gladiator games lasted for nearly a thousand years, reaching their peak between the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD. Christians disapproved of the games because they involved idolatrous pagan rituals, and the popularity of gladiatorial contests declined in the fifth century, leading to their disappearance.

Herbert Schmalz, Faithful Unto Death – Christianae ad Leones (1897)

Dear Saint Stephen first deacon and martyr, you are the patron saint and model for all deacons. You gave your life unafraid, valiantly speaking the truth you forgave those who were you persecutors. With love we mold our lives after yours. May we gain courage and strength from the wisdom and faith that you possessed as gifted by the Holy Spirit. Intercede for us, oh powerful Saint Stephen, that we may quietly reach out to the poor and the lonely, not seeking recognition for ourselves, but to honor the name of our Lord Jesus, the Savior. You who had the face of an angel guide our path – we ask all of this through the prayer of our Lord Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

In Irish, it is called Lá Fhéile Stiofáin or Lá an Dreoilín, meaning the Wren Day. When used in this context, “wren” is often pronounced “ran”. This name alludes to several legends, including those found in Irish mythology, linking episodes in the life of Jesus to the wren. People dress up in old clothes, wear straw hats and travel from door to door with fake wrens (previously real wrens were killed) and they dance, sing and play music. This tradition is less common than it was a couple of generations ago. Depending on which region of the country, they are called “wrenboys” and mummers. A Mummer’s Festival is held at this time every year in the village of New Inn, County Galway, and Dingle in County Kerry. Mumming is also a big tradition in County Fermanagh in Ulster. Saint Stephen’s Day is a popular day for visiting family members and going to the theatre to see a pantomime.

  • The wren the wren the king of all birds
  • St Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze
  • Her clothes were all torn- her shoes were all worn
  • Up with the kettle and down with the pan
  • Give us a penny to bury the “wran”
  • If you haven’t a penny, a halfpenny will do
  • If you haven’t a halfpenny, God bless you!

Gorse (furze) is closely related to the brooms and like them has green stems and very small leaves and is adapted to dry growing conditions. It is found in the iberian peninsula. Wran is the word for a dead wren.

The European tradition of giving money and other gifts to those in need, or in service positions, has been dated to the Middle Ages, but the exact origin is unknown. It is sometimes believed to be in reference to the alms box placed in the narthex of Christian churches to collect donations for the poor. The tradition may come from a custom in the late Roman/early Christian era wherein alms boxes placed in churches were used to collect special offerings tied to the Feast of Saint Stephen, which, in the Western Christian Churches, falls on the same day as Boxing Day, the second day of Christmastide. On this day, it is customary in some localities for the alms boxes to be opened and distributed to the poor.

In Britain, it was a custom 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 in Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for 19 December 1663. This custom is linked to an older British tradition where the servants of the wealthy were allowed the next day to visit their families since they would have had to serve their masters on Christmas Day. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses, and sometimes leftover food. Until the late 20th century there continued to be a tradition among many in the UK to give a Christmas gift, usually cash, to vendors, although not on Boxing Day as many would not work on that day.

The Victory of Faith, by Saint George Hare, depicts two Christians in the eve of their damnatio ad bestias, 1891

The lions can be seen in the shadows in this painting. Still the women are tranquil sleeping together in the straw. When considering the painting: The Victory of Faith, by Saint George Hare (above), which shows Christian women being strapped to posts before the animals are released to tear them to pieces. These two paintings show how bleak the situations was for Christians.

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1883)

Christians were frequently made a spectacle by the Romans who would put them before beasts to tear them apart. Others were burned on crucifixes which was an even more heinous torture.

Boxing Day is generally a legal holiday throughout the commonwealth. Generally December 26 is set as the holiday however when Christmas falls on a Sunday some jurisdictions may change the day to the next weekday when Christmas is Saturday. Commercial interests today have long driven the charity nature of Boxing Day to being just another shopping blitz.

Let us remember that the poorest in society often have very little to eat. A gift of food can be powerful. Clothing and blankets can help the huddled masses. Please give generously.