Boxing Day is usually the day after Christmas Day, and so it is most often December 26th. As such it is part of the Christmas celebration and the ongoing festivities. In the UK it is a bank holiday and so businesses and some shops will be shut. This is not the case in America, and parts of Canada, where shops and businesses remain open with normal working hours. In most of the world, December 26th does not have a special name other than being known as the second day of Christmas.
In years when Christmas Day is a Saturday, Boxing Day is traditionally celebrated on Monday the 27th instead, and the 26th is referred to as Christmas Sunday. This occurred last in 2021 and will be the case next in 2027, 2032, and then 2038. Many shops and businesses however continue to refer to Sunday as Boxing Day, even though the Bank Holiday officially takes place on Monday.
In some parts of the world, Boxing Day is also celebrated as Saint Stephen’s Day, honoring the patron saint of stonemasons and horses.
The History of Boxing Day
Boxing Day was added to the UK calendar in 1871 by the Bank Holidays Act, which was "An act to make provision for Bank Holidays, and respecting obligations to make payments and do other acts on such Bank Holidays".
When Parliament introduced it, it was not without some opposition, with some MPs concerned that the extra day of holiday would encourage laziness or drunkenness, and damage the economy.
If the principle of the measure were pushed to its logical conclusion it would involve the stoppage of railway traffic, the use of hackney carriages, and interfere with trade generally on the days in question. Moreover he believed the Bill would be found to act injuriously by giving the working classes increased facilities for drinking.
The Act was nonetheless passed and the 26th was celebrated as a Bank Holiday for the first time in 1871.
A day of charity
Before being widely known as Boxing Day, the name St Stephens Day was more commonly used. The name features in one of the most popular Christmas carols, Good King Wenceslas:
Good King Wenceslas looked out,
on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night,
tho' the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
gathering winter fuel.
This Carol was published in 1853 and depicts the charitable events of the 'good' King as he seeks to help the poor, and his personal page boy as they travel through the snow. The final words of the some are "Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing."
The main theme of this carol, and also of St Stephens Day and by association Boxing Day too, is goodwill and generosity. This may mean generosity to the poor or homeless, but also means kindness to the family and work colleagues.
A day of giving
Boxing day has for many centuries been a day of giving. In the homes of wealthy landowners, servants worked hard during Christmas day serving the family and guests, as a result, it became a tradition for the rich to give a box of gifts on boxing day to their servants. As well as gifts there would also be money and leftovers from Christmas dinner and bottles of drink.
One of the first written references to Boxing Day was in 1663, in the diary of Samuel Pepys where he wrote “Thence by coach to my shoemaker’s and paid all there, and gave something to the boys’ box against Christmas.”. He wrote this in his diary on Saturday 19 December 1663, showing that the tradition is at least 350 years old.
A second Christmas Day
Many families treat Boxing Day as a second Christmas Day, they use the leftovers from Christmas Day (of which there are traditionally lots!) and create a second Christmas meal. They also sometimes save presents and cards to open, especially if they feel they have too many to open on Christmas Day.
The tradition is often kept by families who have to work on Christmas Day, shift workers, doctors, etc. so that they can have a day on which to celebrate.
A day of sport
The UK has many Boxing Day sporting traditions. One of the most famous is the Boxing Day hunt which has drawn a crowd across the country for many years. The sport, however, is controversial and was made illegal in 2004. Since then a variation of the sport has replaced traditional fox hunting called trail hunting, where someone leaves a trail for the horses and hounds to follow beforehand, and so no foxes are harmed. One of the reasons for the popularity of fox hunting on Boxing Day is that St Stephens is the patron saint of horses, and often part of the events of the day is the parading of the horses through the village/town.
Football is another sport that is part of the UK Boxing Day tradition. Whereas in most of Europe, football leagues take a break over the Christmas period, in the UK that is not the case and most teams have fixtures on Boxing Day.
If you fancy a rather cold swim you may be pleased to hear that the tradition of going for a dip in the sea is becoming more and more popular. Boxing Day dips take place all over the country so if you're interested have a look and see if one is taking place in your area. Many of the dips take place on behalf of a charity, and so it is a good chance to share in the history of Boxing Day goodwill by raising money for those in need.
An important part of Boxing Day now is the Boxing Day Sales which begin on December 26th every year. It is the most popular sale in the UK, as equally popular as Black Friday. In other countries, the same sales tend to be called the January Sales. During the Boxing Day Sales of 2019 (pre-covid-19) Barclaycard estimated that a total of £3.7 billion was spent, with the generation most likely to participate in the sales being Generation Z, spending during Boxing Day 2021 an average of £493 each.