Boxing Day is the time at Christmas when the focus shifts from the family to the wider world. Historically, it was the day when tradesmen knocked on doors for their Christmas boxes. There were outings to the panto, and in more recent years, to sporting events.
But none of that prepared us for the rudeness with which the external world intruded into our cosy comforts when, on Boxing Day in 2004, a massive tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean, creating one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history with more than 230,000 people killed in 14 countries. The event created, for many in our generation, a link between Boxing Day and the idea of giving to those in need beyond our family circle. The international response to the disaster created one of the greatest humanitarian campaigns ever.
These are hard times, and yet human compassion remains largely undimmed, certainly in the UK. A survey this month by the Charities Aid Foundation discovered that, though giving has fallen by one per cent in the global recession, Britain is the second-most generous nation in the world when it comes to the numbers of people who give to charity. Only the people of Thailand give more.
Our Christmas Appeal this year is evidence of that. The average donation made by Independent readers so far works out at £87. That is an extraordinarily generous amount. Sociologists may be interested to know that people who donate by phone give most, £93 each, followed by those who post, £91, with online donors averaging £77.
But if there are curious differences over the medium of giving, there is no ambiguity in your response to the message of our three charities this year. Each does something to help people in need who cannot find succour or support elsewhere. The Rainbow Trust helps with that most Cinderella of causes, practical and emotional support for families with dying children, whose care falls between the gaps of the statutory services.
The Children's Society looks out for vulnerable children who have run away from home. Their number grows by an extraordinary 300 every day, with Christmas a particularly acute time for the family problems which drive teenagers on to streets which are particularly cold and lonely in what, for others, is a joyful and inclusive season.
And the chord which Save the Children strikes in the conscience of the nation is clear from the fact that, even in uncertain economic times, its emergency appeal for East Africa has become its most successful ever, overtaking even the £6.8m it raised for that Asian tsunami.
Our appeal began this month featuring a child called Umi who arrived a frail, skeletal victim in an African refugee camp. Six weeks later, we are thrilled to be able to tell you, she is a vision of plump-baby good health. Our appeal runs until 7 January, when the 12 days of Christmas are finally over. We hope you will continue to be as generous, confident in the knowledge of the amazing transformations even the smallest gifts can bring.