What is Boxing Day?

What is Boxing Day?

What is Boxing Day? Do you have to buy a gift for the UPS delivery person, or punch someone, or what?

Put down the gloves

Boxing Day has nothing to do with pugilism, unless you feel like having a Rocky marathon the day after Christmas.

Boxing Day is the name given to a bank holiday that is observed on December 26th (or the first or second weekday after Christmas Day, if Christmas falls on a Saturday or Sunday that year) in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and a few other Commonwealth nations.

It’s also known as St. Stephen’s Day or the Day of the Wren in Ireland, and was renamed Day of Goodwill in South Africa in 1994.

So… why boxing?

Well, here’s the thing — no one really knows anymore. The most likely origins of the name are traced to England of the Middle Ages, where it was traditional for tradesmen to collect “Christmas boxes” of either money or presents on the first weekday following Christmas, as a type of thank you gift for the year’s service.

Evidence is seen here, in the diary of Samuel Pepys from December 19, 1663. (You can see a later take on the Boxing Day event in the newspaper story below.)

This tradition stems from another that dates back even further, as English servants were often allowed to take the 26th off to visit with their families in exchange for ensuring that their wealthy landowners’ Christmas ran smoothly.

It’s even possible that this tradition has its origins even centuries before — to the late Roman and early Christian era, when metal boxes were placed outside churches to collect offerings connected to the Feast of Saint Stephen.

Boxing Day today

In addition to everyone getting the day off, in the countries that observe it Boxing Day is mostly known as a shopping holiday, rather like Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) in the United States.

For many retailers in these countries, Boxing Day generates the highest single day revenue out of any day in the year. Recently, the term “Cyber Boxing Day” has come to exist, as in the UK it has now become the busiest day of the year for online shopping as well.

Boxing Day is also a popular day for sport. It marks the beginning of the Boxing Day Test for cricket in Australia, as well as the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. The World Junior Hockey Championship begins on the 26th traditionally, and the NHL usually holds a full slate of 11 games on Boxing Day, after giving teams both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off.

In England, it’s traditional for local rivals in the Premier League (soccer, to us Americans) to face off on Boxing Day.

And, yes, in some African Commonwealth nations, prizefighting contests are held on Boxing Day. So if you plan to celebrate Christmas in, say, Ghana — go ahead and bring your gloves and trunks.

Boxing Day observed by the Britishers with great eclat

From The San Francisco Call (California) December 27, 1896

Time-honored Boxing Day — so called from the fact that from time immemorial it has been devoted to the giving of “Christmas boxes,” or “tips” — is being observed today with the usual eclat.

The letter-carriers of the metropolis and the provincial cities returned from their morning trips loaded down with presents and with their financial resources increased in proportion to the wealth of the district embraced in their rounds; and the baker-boys, grocers’ assistants, milk-carriers, newspaper deliverers and servants of all decrees and stations received their Christmas gratuities with becoming thankfulness.

The sideboards of the public houses, or saloons, were adorned with the usual round of corned beef and platters of red pickled cabbage — the Boxing Day fare of the ale drinker for centuries — and patrons toasted the landlords in foaming tankards, supplied without money and without price.

The day being bank holiday, there was a general suspension of business, and the streets of the city were thronged with merry holiday-keepers.

Tonight the opening of the Christmas pantomimes will attract a multitude to the various theaters. The shows are fully as elaborate, and in some cases more so than of yore; but the old fables have not yet given way to new fangled ideas, and just as was the case two or three decades ago, “Puss in Boots,” “Aladdin,” “Bluebeard,” and “Cinderella” furnish the groundwork of the peculiarly English pantomime entertainment.

MORE: For an Edwardian-style Christmas: A huge collection of ideas for traditional holiday decor, delicious recipes & more

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