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What Does 'Boxing Day' Mean? The Mysterious Holiday Explained

December 26 - we all know it, we all celebrate it. But what is the origin story behind Boxing Day?

It comes creeping around every year following Christmas Day, and many of us relish the public holiday as a chance to unwind and relax after a hectic festive period.

However, it's etymology is as mysterious as our bellies are full. Boxing Day has a long and dynamic history, and it's not all bargains and cricket.

There is plenty of contention surrounding exactly how long the notion of Boxing Day has existed, with certain schools of thought linking it way back to the Middle Ages. But the holiday is most widely tied to the 1600s.

Historians have traced the term 'Boxing Day' back to 17th century England, when a 'Christmas box' was a common gift given by the wealthy to their servants.

No surprises, boxing day is all about boxes. Image: Getty

After a hectic Christmas day of cooking, cleaning and general festive frivolity, the rich were known to give their servants the 26th off to allow them to spend the day with their own families. It was also a common custom to gift tradespeople a Christmas box to thank them for their assistance throughout the year.

An extract from 19 December 1663 from 'The Diary of Samuel Pepys', a famous British writer and parliamentarian, is commonly cited as one of the earliest tangible examples of Boxing Day.

“By coach to my shoemaker’s and paid all there,” he wrote, “and gave something to the boys’ box against Christmas.”

The word 'box' is also thought to have come about through church traditions, where the collection boxes filled with money on Christmas Day were emptied and given to the poor the following day.

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'Boxing Day' is primarily celebrated by the United Kingdom, and in turn, other Commonwealth countries including Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

For each of these nations, December 26 has become a day of sales and sport. With thousands of Australians descending upon major annual events such as the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, cricket's Boxing Day Test, and the largescale shopping sales predominately held in each capital city's major malls.

Despite it's occurrence right alongside Christmas, Boxing Day is widely accepted as a secular holiday devoid of religious associations in Australia. We may use the day to worship cricket. But around the world it remains a day of more traditional religion.

It's a huge day on the Australian calendar. Image: Getty

Internationally, there are a number of nations that celebrate December 26 as 'Saint Stephen's Day'. On the Christian calendar, the date marks the feast of Saint Stephen -- the first Christian martyr who is commemorated for public acts of charity.

Saint Stephen's Day is celebrated by The Latin Church (known also as the Western Church or Roman Catholic Church) on December 26 and in Eastern Christianity on December 27.

In Ireland and Wales, Saint Stephen's Day is the name given to the public holiday, as opposed to Boxing Day. An ancient Welsh custom, which was discontinued two centuries ago, saw many commemorate the day by beating late risers and female servants with holly branches. The violent ceremony was thought to bring good luck.

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While in Australia December 26 is largely a secular day of sport and shopping, it's history is long and convoluted. So put the gloves away and step out of the ring, Boxing Day is certainly not as literal as many think.

Featured Image: Getty