Among the carols filling the air in Britain at Christmastime is the story of a 10th-century king braving the snow—“deep and crisp and even”—to help a poor man gathering firewood.
“Good King Wenceslas” sets out to deliver food, wine, and logs, and the shivering servant who accompanies him finds that the king’s very footsteps are warm. “Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing,” the final verse promises.
The carol begins with the king looking out “on the Feast of Stephen.” St. Stephen’s Day falls the day after Christmas and honors the first Christian martyr, whose story can be found in the Book of Acts. John Mason Neale, the 19th-century Anglican priest who composed the words to “Good King Wenceslas,” was alluding to a long history of charitable giving on the day.
Yet for the vast majority in Britain today, December 26 is simply Boxing Day. If there’s a tradition covered in the press, it’s that of the Boxing Day sales, when bargain-seeking crowds descend on the country’s malls, akin to Black Friday in the United States.
Francis Young, a UK-based historian of religion and belief, points out that even the idea of shops opening the day after Christmas is a recent development. “It would have been known as St. Stephen’s Day certainly right down to the middle of the 19th century,” he said in an interview with CT.
The name Boxing Day can be traced to around 1830, but “Christmas boxes” associated with the holiday date back to the 17th century. These were clay containers with a slot for coins, like piggy banks. At Christmas, the collected money was distributed to servants as well as tradespeople who delivered goods like mail, milk, and meat.
Not everyone was entirely happy with the system, Young noted. The 18th-century satirical writer and Anglican priest Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, grumbled that he would be “undone” by the custom, complaining about the “rogues” in coffeehouses raising their expected donations.
Today, few British people are still familiar with the traditional Christmas boxes. While the custom of tipping tradespeople has not entirely died out, its decline reflects the centuries of economic shifts. With online shopping, parcels are dropped off by a courier or driver the purchaser will never meet again. The internet has given rise to brief, transactional encounters.
Yet across the country, churches are keeping the tradition of charitable giving alive. At St. Paul’s, Marylebone, in central London, the church serves a Boxing Day lunch to up to 100 guests. Many live alone; others come with family, keen to partake in a community event.
In recent years, a minibus has brought residents from a nearby nursing home. The church is filled with tables and chairs and volunteers come to cook and serve the meal, with food donated by a local hotel. The school connected to the church collects gifts to give out to guests while a local hairdresser sets up a salon in a back room. Carols are sung, and the meal begins and ends with a prayer.
“We’ve always tied it in [to] being St. Stephen’s Day as much as Boxing Day,” said St. Paul’s rector Clare Dowding. “It’s usually begun with a service of some sort at ten o’clock: either prayers or a Eucharist. What I’ve always loved about that is that the Eucharist is taking place at the church at one end with a portable altar, and then, as all our volunteers arrive in the morning to chop sprouts and carrots, they sit there chopping and listening and sharing the carols and Communion.”
For Dowding, the annual day-after-Christmas gathering “has a lovely sense of being part of the St. Stephens’ Day celebration: a feast day that not only connects with St. Stephen but also historically with that sense of caring for our community, caring for one another.”
Christmas Day and Boxing Day can be a lonely time for people, she observes. “Especially if you are watching TV and it’s all about the happy family story. … It’s not so much the food as actually the company, that sort of fellowship.”
Charitable giving is not the only custom associated with Boxing Day.
“It was very much, in medieval England, a continuation of Christmas,” said Young. Among the traditions observed were theater going and hunting (including the belief that this was the one day of the year on which you could hunt the wren, “the king of the birds”).
Centuries ago, rural communities could expect a visit from the mummers, amateur actors who would put on folk plays, such as the story of St. George defeating the dragon. These later gave way to pantomimes—comedies, often based on fairy tales, that continue to attract large crowds today.
Described by one early 20th-century bishop as “the great annual home festival,” Boxing Day was also a rare opportunity for servants and low-paid workers to visit their own families after spending Christmas Day serving someone else’s.
And while government statistics show that few if any weddings take place on Christmas in the UK these days, well into the 20th century it was a popular choice for poorly paid workers unable to afford to take a day off. Boxing Day was a chance for a brief honeymoon. In 1937, the Anglican newspaper Church Times reported that a minister in the East End of London, a working-class area, had 12 couples to marry on the 25th.
While unlikely to be conducting weddings the day before, many of today’s clergy receive Boxing Day as an opportunity for a well-earned rest. In recent years, UK pastors have started a new tradition on social media called the Clergy Malt Club, sharing selfies of drinking whiskey or a similar drink after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
But not everyone will be putting their feet up. When Andy Todd arrived in Worcestershire, in the English West Midlands, he was advised never to work for a church dedicated to St. Stephen “because it means that you don’t get to hang up your stole until well after Christmas Day.”
He has no regrets about taking up his position as priest in charge at St. Stephen’s, Barbourne in the city of Worcester. On December 26, the congregation gathers for a special service celebrating its patron saint.
The church burns incense, clergy wear their “finest robes,” and a senior church leader in the area comes to celebrate the Eucharist. The church also invites a newly ordained minister to preach, in recognition of the fact that St. Stephen was not only the first Christian martyr but also one of the first deacons.
For the relatively small number who attend the service, it’s a precious occasion, Todd says. “For many people, to be able to come and celebrate Communion on the day after Christmas is a really important part of their own devotional practice. … I must say, I come to the end of it with a feeling of real joy.”
Todd called St. Stephen’s Day a “poignant festival.” His church’s huge west window tells the story of the saint’s martyrdom. “A lot of Christmas celebration outside is rather superficial and a bit glitzy,” he said. “But actually, to the whole Christmas story, there’s this dark edge running through it, and coming back to St. Stephen at the end of it is a reminder of that.”
His congregation will be among those singing “Good King Wenceslas,” with its themes of poverty and isolation. With many in the UK facing a cost-of-living crisis, including rocketing energy bills, St. Stephen’s, like many churches across the country, is open this winter as a warm place where people can take shelter.
The Worcester church has another link to the tradition of charitable giving too. Wealthy residents funded its construction in the mid-19th century so servants living in the northern part of the city wouldn’t have to travel and pay tolls to worship each week.
“They built St. Stephen’s—a deacon, servant—for the servants to the city,” Todd said. “There’s a lovely historical resonance there.”
Having been ordained seven years ago, after working for decades in industry, he recalls that “Boxing Day, for me, had a slight sense of flatness after the Christmas hype and a sense of fullness from having eaten too much. It was TV, increasingly shopping, and it felt very inward-looking and a bit shallow. I found that coming to St. Stephen’s and having this particular emphasis on the day is a real celebration of community and of service.”
The Archbishop of York, one of the most senior leaders in the Church of England, agrees.
“For me, Boxing Day will always, first of all, be St. Stephen’s Day,” Stephen Cottrell said. “The Christian calendar confronts us with the remembrance of the first Christian martyr on the day after we celebrate Jesus’ birth. No cozy stable is allowed. If we choose to follow this child, there will be challenge, there will be conflict, there will be consequences.
“So, my Boxing Day will mean a walk, cold turkey, bubble and squeak, a movie on the TV, but also church. The Eucharist on Boxing Day, or St. Stephen’s Day, tells me what Christmas means for me.”
Madeleine Davies is senior writer at the Church Times in London and author of Lights for the Path: A Guide Through Grief, Pain, and Loss.