What is Boxing Day: Complete Guide to the Holiday



A festive Boxing Day scene in a family living room, filled with open gift boxes and wrapping paper. Various family members, including a Caucasian grandfather, a Black mother, and Asian children, are engaged in activities like playing board games, reading books, and enjoying Christmas treats. The room is decorated with a still-lit Christmas tree, adding to the lively and multicultural ambiance of the celebration.

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Boxing Day, celebrated on December 26th, is a holiday with historical roots and various modern-day interpretations across countries.

This article will delve into the origins and evolution of Boxing Day. Traditionally linked to the United Kingdom, it’s believed to have started as a day when alms boxes were opened and the contents distributed to the poor. We’ll explore how it has transformed over the years into a day characterized by different customs, such as post-Christmas sales, sporting events, and family gatherings.

From its charitable beginnings to its current status as a public holiday in many nations, we’ll uncover the multifaceted nature of Boxing Day and how it’s observed in different parts of the world.

Key Takeaways: Understanding Boxing Day

  • Boxing Day is celebrated on December 26th. It’s the day after Christmas and is a public holiday in many countries, including the UK, Canada, and Australia.

  • Traditionally, it was a day to give to the less fortunate. Historically, Boxing day began as people gave boxes of gifts or money to service workers and those in need.

  • It’s known for its sporting events. In some countries, Boxing Day is associated with sporting events like football matches and horse races.

  • Retail sales and shopping are a modern tradition. It’s often compared to Black Friday in the United States, with stores offering significant discounts.

  • It can also be a day for family gatherings. For many, it’s an extension of Christmas festivities, involving family visits and continued celebrations.

  • Boxing Day has roots in British history. The tradition dates back to the Middle Ages in the UK and has evolved over time.

  • It’s a day for relaxation and leisure. Many people use the day to relax and recover from the festivities of Christmas Day.

  • In some places, it’s called St. Stephen’s Day. This alternative name is used in countries like Ireland where it is the Saints Feast Day.

  • It’s a bank holiday in several countries. This means that many businesses and government offices are closed.

  • The origin of the name is debated. Some suggest it comes from the practice of opening charity boxes at churches, while others link it to gift boxes given to employees.

Why is It Called Boxing Day

Boxing Day, celebrated on December 26, has its roots in the Middle Ages and is intrinsically linked to British Christian traditions. In those times, it was common for alms boxes to be placed in churches during the Advent season. These boxes collected donations for the poor, allowing the community to share in the spirit of giving.

During the Christmas season, especially on Christmas Day, people would contribute to these alms boxes, filling them with money or gifts as a form of charity. These alms boxes or Christmas boxes would then be opened on the day after Christmas, December 26 – a day which is also known as St. Stephen’s Day, in honor of the first Christian martyr.

St. Stephen – often associated with acts of charity – holds an important place in the Christian tradition. The popular carol “Good King Wenceslas” recounts the story of a king who braved the harsh winter to deliver alms to the poor on St. Stephen’s Day.

Over time, the concept of Boxing Day evolved, and by the 17th century, it became customary for servants to receive a Christmas box from their employers. In his diaries, Samuel Pepys documented this practice and its growth in popularity.

As servants were often busy working on Christmas Day, Boxing Day became their day off, allowing them to visit their families and celebrate with the contents of the Christmas box.

In a display of reciprocity, some servants would give Christmas boxes to their employers, and tradespeople would offer them to their patrons. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first recorded use of the term “Boxing Day” to 1833.

Boxing Day Traditions in Different Countries

In the United Kingdom, Boxing Day is observed as a public holiday in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland on December 26. As a bank holiday, many people have the day off to recover from Christmas festivities, and often take this opportunity to visit friends and family.

Traditionally, it was a day when employers would give their staff Christmas boxes, which contained gifts, bonuses, or leftover food (Turkey sandwiches and Christmas cake). Nowadays, it’s also well-known for its massive post-Christmas sales, where you can snatch some great bargains.

One unique tradition is the Boxing Day Dip, where participants brave the cold water in their festive clothing or fancy dress to raise money for charity. Oftentimes, this is accompanied by the celebration of St. Stephen’s Day, the patron saint of horses, which involves horse racing and fox hunting as popular activities during this day.

Boxing Day is also observed in many Commonwealth countries, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, and Nigeria. The observance varies between countries, as some have adopted their own unique customs and traditions.

In general, Boxing Day serves as an additional day of rest following Christmas, and it is common for people to continue enjoying their holiday treats with their loved ones.

In Australia, cricket fans look forward to the Boxing Day Test match held at Melbourne Cricket Ground. The test match, which attracts significant attention, begins on December 26 annually and continues for a few days, with thousands of spectators attending. This sporting event has become an iconic part of Australian culture for both the participants and the audience.

Some European countries also observe Boxing Day or similar traditions. In the Netherlands, for example, December 26 is known as “Tweede Kerstdag,” or “Second Christmas Day,” with similar celebrations observed. In Poland, the day is referred to as “St. Stephen’s Day” or “Szczepan,” while in Ireland, it is called “Lá Fhéile Stiofáin” in Irish and “St. Stephen’s Day” in English.

The image captures the Wren Boys Hunt, a vibrant Irish tradition on St. Stephen's Day. A group of 'Wren Boys' in colorful, makeshift costumes, masks, and straw hats parade through a quaint Irish village. They carry a pole with a fake wren and play musical instruments like drums and tin whistles. The village is festively decorated, with locals watching and enjoying the parade. The backdrop features the picturesque Irish countryside with rolling green hills and stone walls, embodying the spirit of this unique tradition.

St. Stephen’s Day Traditions in Ireland – Lá Fhéile Stiofáin

Hunting the Wren: One of the most famous St. Stephen’s Day traditions is the “Wren Boys” procession. Historically, groups of small boys would hunt for a wren, and then carry its feathered body around town in a holly bush. While the hunting of the wren no longer takes place, the tradition has evolved into a kinder celebration involving all the local chidren.

Today, people, often children or musicians, dress up in old clothes, straw hats, and various disguises, and parade through towns and villages. This procession is often accompanied by music, dancing, and singing. Just like other feasts, it’s a great community festivity.

Another unique Irish Christmas tradition is Nollaig na mBan or Little Women’s Christmas in Ireland.

Boxing Day Traditions and Activities

During the Christmas season, it is common for employers to give Christmas boxes to their servants, employees, or the poor as a gesture of goodwill. These boxes may contain leftover food, wine, firewood, or small gifts. Traditionally, these boxes were given out on Boxing Day, and recipients were often people who worked throughout the holiday period. In this spirit of charity, many people also make donations to churches and other organizations on Boxing Day.

Boxing Day is a popular day for various sporting events, especially in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Whether you’re a fan of football, rugby, cricket, or horse racing, there’s likely a game to watch or participate in on this day. For example:

  • Football matches: Many leagues schedule matches on Boxing Day, making it a busy day for players and fans alike.

  • Rugby: Matches are held across the countries that celebrate Boxing Day.

  • Cricket: In Australia, the Boxing Day Test, held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, is a major event.

  • Horse racing: Many countries, including the UK, hold traditional horse races on this day.

To make the most of the holiday season, remember to keep an eye on the schedule and gather your friends and family for a fun time cheering on your favorite team!

In some countries, such as the UK, Boxing Day has long been associated with fox hunting. Traditionally, hunters would gather early in the morning on horseback, wearing their finest attire, to participate in this centuries-old tradition. However, in recent years, fox hunting has become a controversial issue, with many opting for “drag hunting,” where an artificial scent is laid for the hounds to follow, instead of chasing live foxes.

Boxing Day is also known as a major shopping day in many countries, similar to Black Friday in the United States and part of the busy holiday season. Retailers often offer significant discounts, attracting large crowds of bargain hunters. Shops may open early and close late, giving you plenty of time to grab those coveted post-Christmas deals.

Modern Significance of Boxing Day

Boxing Day, celebrated on December 26th, is a public holiday observed in many countries, including the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Its modern significance has evolved from its historical roots, and today, it encompasses various activities and customs. Here’s a look at what Boxing Day means in contemporary times:

  1. Retail Sales and Shopping: In many countries, Boxing Day is synonymous with shopping and retail sales. It’s akin to Black Friday in the United States. Many retailers offer significant discounts, making it one of the busiest shopping days of the year. People often queue up early in the morning to take advantage of the sales.

  2. Sporting Events: Boxing Day is a major day for sports in several countries. In the UK, for instance, there’s a full program of Boxing Day football (soccer) matches across the leagues, and it’s a traditional day for fox hunting (now without the actual hunt in the UK). In Australia and New Zealand, cricket matches, particularly the Boxing Day Test match in Melbourne, are a highlight.

  3. Family Time and Relaxation: As it comes right after Christmas Day, Boxing Day is often seen as a time to relax and spend time with family and friends, especially for those who may have worked on Christmas Day. It’s a day to enjoy the leftovers from the Christmas feast and unwind.

  4. Charity and Acts of Kindness: Reflecting its historical roots where boxes were given to the poor and to service workers, some people use Boxing Day as an opportunity to donate to charity or perform acts of kindness.

  5. Outdoor Activities: In some places, Boxing Day is seen as a day to get outside and enjoy outdoor activities, such as hiking, going to the beach, or participating in a charity fun run. No matter what day Boxing Day Falls on, it many countries its an official public holiday (bank holidays)

FAQ on Boxing Day Holiday Celebrated in Many Countries

Why doesn’t America celebrate Boxing Day?

America doesn’t celebrate Boxing Day as it is primarily a British and Commonwealth tradition. The United States has its own unique set of holidays and traditions, and Boxing Day has never been integrated into the American holiday calendar. Instead, the focus in the U.S. during this time is typically on post-Christmas sales and the upcoming New Year’s celebrations.

What do you serve on Boxing Day?

On Boxing Day, it’s common to serve leftovers from the Christmas Day meal, often repurposed into new dishes. In the UK, for instance, this might include cold meats, such as ham or turkey, along with salads and pies. It’s also a day for relaxed, informal dining, so buffet-style meals featuring cheese boards, pickles, and cold cuts are popular.

What is Boxing Day and why is it celebrated?

Boxing Day, celebrated on December 26th, is a holiday originating in the United Kingdom and observed in many Commonwealth nations and is celebrated like other festive days such as Christmas Day and Christmas Eve Traditions. Traditionally, it was a day when employers gave their staff and the less fortunate ‘Christmas boxes’ containing money or gifts. Today, it is more about spending time with family and friends, shopping in post-Christmas sales, and enjoying sports or outdoor activities.

Why do they call Boxing Day?

The name “Boxing Day” is believed to have originated from the tradition of giving “Christmas boxes” – a form of bonus or gift – to servants and tradespeople, dating back to the Middle Ages. These boxes were given out the day after Christmas, thus the name “Boxing Day.” The term reflects the practice of giving these boxed gifts, not the sport of boxing.

What is the significance of Boxing Day in England?

In England, Boxing Day is significant as a time for relaxation and spending time with friends and family not seen on Christmas Day. It’s also associated with sporting events, like football and horse racing, and is a major day for retail, with many shops offering post-Christmas sales. The tradition of giving to those less fortunate is also remembered, though it has evolved into more of a general holiday for relaxation and enjoyment.

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