Christmas Lyn

The Complete History of Boxing Day

Updated June 1, 2024

What does Boxing Day mean to you?

Boxing day traditions go back 2000 years to the ancient Roman pagan celebrations, have been incorporated loosely into our Christian traditions – and now there are many fun facts about the day after Christmas.

As Christmas Day is a time for indulgence, most of us need a chance to rest and recuperate. Boxing Day gives us the perfect excuse! And where Boxing Day is an official holiday – an official excuse.

Although Boxing Day has changed over the centuries, the basic idea of giving continues. A chance to dress up and an excuse to party.

From recuperation on the couch to active participation in sport, from friends to football, we have a huge choice. And our latest and fastest-growing Boxing Day tradition is – shopping.

Why is it Called Boxing Day?

Boxing day seems a strange name for a holiday. It has nothing to do with boxing as a sport. But there is a logic behind the name – although the origin is obscure.

Perhaps the earliest explanation comes from an early Christian/Roman custom. An alms box was placed in the church during the run-up to Christmas. The day after the festival it was opened, and the contents were given to the local poor.

It is linked to the name of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death in Jerusalem in 34 AD. He was noted for his charity, and Saint Stephen’s day is still remembered in Catholic Ireland.

In medieval times in Britain, the Lords of the Manor expected their servants to work on Christmas day.

So boxing Day was a day off with a box of goodies to take home to their families. The box would contain money and small gifts, often leftover food from the Christmas celebration.

Similar to this was the custom among wealthy families of giving a tradesman a box containing money just after Christmas as a reward for excellent service during the year.

This has been described by Samuel Pepys in his famous diary in 1663. And the custom survives in part to this day in Britain.

The first “official” title is an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1833.

The entry reads: “The first weekday after Christmas day, observed as a holiday on which postmen, errand boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas box.”

And four years later Charles Dickens mentions the custom in his book The Pickwick Papers.

When is Boxing Day Celebrated?

Boxing Day is the name given to the day after Christmas, i.e. December 26.

In many countries and states in America Boxing Day is a holiday – and this is where a problem arose. What if Boxing Day falls on a Sunday – a day of rest for most of us?

The solution was to name Boxing Day as the first weekday after Christmas. So, if Christmas, which always fell on December 25, was on a Saturday, then Boxing Day would be on the Monday afterwards.

For those who celebrate Saint Stephen’s day, this falls on December 26 in the Latin Church but December 27 in Eastern Christian Churches.

Ireland was a special case. Before the partitions of Ireland in 1920, Saint Stephen’s day was always a holiday on December 26.

When Northern Ireland separated from the South and continued as part of the United Kingdom, they adopted the British name and time of Boxing Day.

In Hong Kong, despite being divorced from Britain, they continue to celebrate Boxing day as a holiday. Although the Chinese do not celebrate Christmas, in major tourist areas Boxing Day is a great excuse for sales and shopping.

In America, some states have a Boxing Day holiday, some have the date but not the holiday. This can be traced back in part to the original settlers from Europe who brought their own traditions with them.

Early puritans from Britain had no notion of Boxing Day – but later setters did. So, there are pockets where Boxing day is celebrated, and shops and government offices are closed.

Boxing Day Around The World

Boxing day is a good excise for some peculiar traditions!

Perhaps we should start with England, up and down the country there are some rather silly activities – but they give a lot of pleasure, especially to the spectators.

Many charities use Boxing Day to add to their revenues with fun runs, swimming the icy English Channel, and charity events, like medieval feasts and ghost stories.

National Trust properties open on Boxing day and host events like dog walks, where the dogs go in fancy dress – with prizes!

Boxing day used to be the day when the Panto season started. Pantomime started in Ancient Rome as part of their “Saturnalia” winter celebration – a feast where everything was the wrong way round.

Men dressed up as women – a tradition that continues to this day. The pantomime dame is played by a man, often bearded.

The great thing about pantomime is the audience participation – boos and cheers, warning the hero and clapping vigorously. Boxing day USA – and the first pantomime we know about was Robinson Crusoe in New York, 1786.

In Ireland, Boxing Day remembered the stoning of St Stephen by boys dressing up and stoning wrens to death. They then carried the little corpses around town and knock on doors begging for money. Fortunately, that barbaric practice has stopped.

The boys still dress up and collect money – but for charity.

Bermuda celebrates Boxing Day with a colorful dancing display – this tradition arose as this was the day when the slaves were permitted to gather in the 18th century.

Junkanoo is a bright and buoyant street parade. This custom dates from way back in the 16th or 17th century in the Bahamas. There are wonderful costumes, extraordinary masks, the people dance and sing – a lively and joyous occasion.

You can even see past costumes at the Junkanoo Museum in Nassau.

Sports on Boxing Day

After the Christmas overeating Boxing day is either a day to slouch down in front of the television – or go out and exercise.

In the United Kingdom, it’s football. There is usually a full day of team events. Italy is another country with a passion for football yet only in the last couple of years has it been popular on Boxing Day.

But In Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, it’s that very English sport, cricket, that is more popular and test match cricket is played on Boxing Day. Although English cricketers have been known to play cricket in the snow.

Many Australians head for the beaches to lap up the sunshine, laze and take part in water sports. It is also the start of the exciting Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race.

Horse racing is another popular sport with events taking place in places on opposite sides of the World. In England, there is the prestigious King George VI Chase at Kempton Park.

In Barbados, it’s the final day of the horse racing season at The Historic Garrison Savannah, a leftover tradition from the time when Barbados was a British colony.

And New Zealand has had horse racing for over 150 years at Ellerslie, although many New Zealanders chose to go hiking in their glorious mountains or swimming in the sea or lakes.

After all the weather is usually warm and sunny in New Zealand on Boxing Day.

Boxing day used to be the day when the hunt met and they still meet in their red coats, their hunting horns, and stirrup cup of wine and follow a demanding pre-laid chase.

Ice hockey is popular on Boxing Day, with competitions around the world.

And we mustn’t forget boxing! There are professional boxing matches in several African countries, as well as in Italy.

Shopping on Boxing Day

While Boxing Day used to be a day of rest and recuperation and sport, shopping has become a dominant feature with the Boxing Day sales.

People might queue for hours before the shops open to get their hands on the top bargains and it can be an unseemly rush to enter the doors as they open.

In the UK, Boxing Day has been the day when most money is made by the retail industry. Shops have had to invent ways to control or pacify the crowds.

Shopping seems to be universally popular, including in America in those states where the shops are open. But now more and more people are choosing to stay at home and shop on-line – another Boxing Day hobby.

And the canny shopper can find many Boxing Day bargains online.

In some places, shops are forbidden to open to allow the retailers a chance to rest. But many shops are relying on a good Boxing Day for much-needed income, especially in times when money is short and people are spending less on luxury goods.

But hey – this is the time to spend your Christmas money!

It is also a great time to stock up for next Christmas as decoration, fancy dress, and many Christmas goods are going cheap in the sales. A clever shopper can save money.

Sometimes we might end up spending more money than we can afford and for the next few months, our credit cards show a deficit.

In America shopping is different, The Friday after Thanksgiving is the start of the Christmas shopping season, Boxing Day being less important. This pattern is spreading to the UK in the footsteps of American retailers like Amazon.

But many stores do have Boxing Day bargains, and we can return unwanted presents.

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