Until recently—okay, until this morning—I thought Boxing Day had something to do with the sport in which people pummel each other inside a ring. And I further thought that perhaps this holiday had something to do with the Boxer Rebellion.
(It doesn’t, although it turns out the latter is related to boxing, via a typically crude Western misrepresentation of Chinese culture. Yeah, they literally called martial arts—like, all of them, together—"Chinese boxing." Way to not bother noticing that there is more than one martial art in China, British dudes!)
Boxing Day today is primarily regarded as a bank holiday—a chance to take off work—and a day for shopping and watching soccer. As delighted as I am about Arsenal’s demolition of Norwich City F.C. to continue their recent resurgence, my interest in the holiday lies more in its origins than in how, like most other contemporary holidays, it came to serve as a fulcrum for retail economics.
Many people promote different ideas about the origins of the term Boxing Day, but everyone seems to agree that it had something to do with giving money to the poor.
The day after Christmas—celebrated as the Feast of Saint Stephen in many Western churches—is when priests would open the alms box, placed in the lobby of the church to collect offerings throughout the year, and distribute its contents to the poor.
Another possible reference is to the “Christmas box” which British tradespeople gave on this day to their employees as thanks for good service throughout the year. Which seems to me like an implicit acknowledgement that said merchants are not compensating their people a sufficient amount in wages throughout the year, either. Even in the U.S., this concept lives on in the end-of-year tip or bonus.
The Christmas box tradition derives from an even older custom in which wealthy masters sent their servants home to their families on the 26th with a box of “goodies,” a small consolation for having pressed them into duty on Christmas Day itself. This is not just a bygone oppression, one that, by the Victorian era, was already considered a ludicrous hardship that only a miser like Ebenezer Scrooge would inflict; instead, it’s back in fashion for employees in the retail-industrial complex, and those trying to make ends meet in the gig economy, to have to work on Christmas.
Here in the States, we don’t have Boxing Day and its focus on shopping, although I’m sure there are still plenty of products flying off the shelves—at an Amazon warehouse, every day is Boxing Day. We do, however, have the tradition of end-of-year charitable giving, which harkens back to the original spirit of post-Christmas generosity.
And just like that original form of “generosity,” this process of giving is too often just a way to shovel a few bucks toward people and endeavors which we neglect during the rest of the year, in order to soothe our consciences.
I sometimes take offense at the way we compress our benevolence into a two- or three-week period in December and maybe one day during the spring or fall—“Giving Tuesday” or similar. I hate how it can feel like charities and causes and community organizations are pitted against each other to battle for their tiny share of society’s leavings. In a different world, we would create better structures which provide support all year round, and maybe we'd even do what’s necessary to alleviate the need for charity in the first place.
That kind of idealism is fine, even admirable, and we need to keep it alive. At the same time, we live in the world we live in, and giving at special times is currently a fact of that world. There’s no reason that someone like me can’t give money to causes throughout the year and give a little extra at the end of it.
There are plenty of reasons to do it—it feels good to help; it looks good for organizations when their campaigns succeed; there are often donor matches and other forms of leverage we can take advantage of by giving at this time. It makes a difference to the people who count on services and advocacy that they can’t get from any other source. And it provides a good example.
In that spirit, I want to share a few of the organizations I’ve given to, both throughout the year and as part of the end-of-year drive. This is just meant to inspire you, if you’re still thinking about whether or where to donate—any time’s a good time—and to provide some ideas about the kinds of places you might donate to.
Most of us can’t give to all the causes we’d like to support, and that’s a little sad. The flip side is that we can tailor our giving to make it especially meaningful to us, which makes it easier to turn into a tradition and a habit.
I like to give to organizations that are local, or who are doing work that expresses a deeply-held value of mine. I try to direct money towards orgs that are run by people from underrepresented groups, which for me usually means Black-, women-, and/or indigenous-led. For local giving, I encourage you, if you’re not living in the same city as me, to search out the people doing similar work where you live.
Even a small donation makes a difference in someone’s life, and it also sends a message about what’s important, a message which isn’t just meant for others today, but also for our future selves and our descendants.
I can’t claim that this is any kind of “guide,” although I’m glad if it helps. It’s just a list of ideas, and maybe also, a record of what matters to me. Why not "box up" some support today for what matters to you!
Jewish Council on Urban Affairs: You may remember them from such newsletter issues as… yes, this is probably no surprise to many of you, as this is the organization I’ve done the most work with since moving to Chicago. What our donations support: in-depth trainings on racial justice, direct action, and how to fight anti-semitism; trips to the state legislature to advocate for immigration and housing justice; a super-talented team of organizers, including a teen organizing fellowship.
Grassroots Collaborative: A Chicago coalition that brings together a bunch of organized movements with common goals around affordable housing, increased resources for public education, labor rights, and a lot more. What our donations support: canvassing and phone banking; leadership training; legislative advocacy. (P.S. There’s a drawing of me on their website!)
Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization: A Chicago neighborhood organization that’s renowned for developing talented organizers and fighting for healthcare equity, which often means campaigning against hospital and trauma center closures in already-underserved areas. What our donations support: strategic advocacy; resident outreach and political education; many forms of direct service.
No More Empty Pots: An Omaha non-profit helping communities to become food secure and self-sufficient. What our donations support: community kitchen space, CSA boxes for at-risk people; entrepreneurial and job training.
HETRA: Provides equine therapy for adults and kids with disabilities, including my brother Avi! What our donations support: physical conditioning and skill development for those who often can’t get this in traditional ways; emotional well-being and joy that can be hard to come by.
Nebraska Wildlife Rehab: They’re constructing a new state-of-the-art rehab center right in the middle of Omaha, which will be great for exposing city kids like myself to the importance of helping at-risk species. What our donations support: rehabbing injured animals; the new wildlife center; natural habitat restoration.
Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA): Co-ordinates efforts with local activists fighting pollution, corporate development of indigenous lands, corruption, and violence. What our donations support: “accompaniment” to help protect activists from government persecution; legal advocacy; media amplification of underreported stories.
Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES): A little more focused than NISGUA on the U.S. side of things, which includes advocating against unconditional military aid to the current authoritarian regime, and hosting delegations and speaking tours. What our donations support: political pressure; elections monitoring; material support for local social movements fighting political and environmental abuses.
American Friends of Combatants for Peace: Provides American support to a movement of Palestinian and Israeli former combatants who are committed to nonviolent advocacy for peace and equality. In many cases this means support for alleviating the causes of conflict, like lack of water for Palestinian communities in the West Bank. What our donations support: building homes for families and providing school supplies for children; training in nonviolent activism and communication; educational tours and cross-community connections.