Why Boxing Day?
The 26th of December is the Feast of Stephen, a day on which Christians pay respect to the the first Christian martyr. In the church calendar, St Stephen's Day is associated with alms: collecting money for the poor
In England, parish churches would alms boxes would be brought into the church during December. They alms boxes would then be broken open on Stephen's Day - listen here. Pepys refers to this in his diary entry for 19 December 1663.
The day also became associated with recreational and sporting events. These included chaotic 'football' matches between villages. By the Nineteenth Century this had evolved into a secular festival for workers. The name Boxing Day was made official in the 1830s and became a public holiday in the 1880s.
IrelandThe initial religious association of St. Stephen’s Day (Lá Fhéile Stiofáin) retained a stronger cultural resonance in Ireland. The tradition of visiting neighbours with gifts of food and drink, is described in the Irish American song Christmas in Killarney :
This misleadingly suggests that these home visits happen on the 25th. Visiting another family on Christmas Day was, in fact, seen as a transgression of social protocol.
In John McGahern’s Amongst Women, even Scrooge fan-boy and world-class curmudgeon, Moran, opens his home to visitors on Stephen’s Day: