The day is mostly unknown in America. Most Americans have never heard of the day, or if they have, speculate that it’s the day to get rid of the empty boxes leftover from Christmas presents.
The fact is, though, even in countries where people do have the day off, most of them haven’t any clue as to why it’s called Boxing Day. And small wonder, because no one really knows. The few who purport to know authoritatively what is is, turn out to have as their sources people quoting other people and at the root of the trail is conjecture, with no solid evidence for it one way or the other. All explanations seem to involve you giving something to someone “lower on the social scale”:
- It was a day for giving presents in boxes to servants, trades people and employees. Now, most employees get their bonuses before Christmas, and most trades people get their tips in the run-up to Christmas as people their customers see them;
- You gave presents to your friends and family on or before Christmas day, and to those socially beneath you later, on Boxing Day;
- In the Anglican Church, poor boxes were placed by the church doors in the lead-up to Christmas. The money in these boxes was opened on this day, which is also St Stephen’s Day, because he is the patron saint of the poor, and distributed to the needy on this day
The only one that has a solid basis in fact is in fact the alms boxes.
By 1834, Boxing Day had disappeared as a holiday. In fact, many holidays had — the Industrial Revolution did away with many holidays. There were 47 bank holidays in 1761; by 1834, only 4 remained.
Boxing Day was restored in 1871 by the Bank Holidays Act, proposed by Sir John Lubbock. The act also restored Easter Monday, Whit Monday, and the first Monday of August.3
People spend the day in different ways:
- Some use it as a day to give to the parts of your family that you didn’t spend Christmas Day with;
- Some prefer it as a day to do nothing;
- In many parts of Canada, many stores are open with post-Christmas sales. A lot of people race to the stores for bargains, and to return or exchange dud gifts that they got for Christmas (the standard joke goes that it’s called Boxing Day because shoppers may feel at the end of the day as though they had been in a boxing match.)
- Some people treat it as a day to use Christmas leftovers, particularly turkey. Many people make an effort to make up some kind of recipe from the leftover turkey, rather than just serving cold turkey sandwiches.
For many it’s a quiet day, to flick through the chocolates left in the trays that nobody wanted. It has also come to be the day on which you take children out to plays or special activities, if only to get them out of the house and out of mother’s hair for a while after the madness of Christmas Day.
In the UK, events held today include horse races, cricket matches, soccer games, annual icy dips in the sea or Channel, fox hunts and regattas. Banks and stores will be closed in the UK.
In Australia, there’s the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, starting in Sydney Harbour, the Australian Boxing Day Cricket Test in Melbourne , horse-races, and sales! Some Australians use the day to start packing up the stuff from the Christmas holidays, and start to pack for their summer holidays.
Literature & Lore
The Christmas Carol, Good King Wencelas, is set on Boxing Day (aka, St Stephen’s Day or “the Feast of Stephen”)
Stephen was possibly the first Christian martyr, mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles 6:1 to 8: 2. The carol was written by John Mason Neale (1818-1866) , an Anglican priest,. It appeared in his carol collection called “Carols for Christmas-Tide”, published 1853. The melody is actually from a 13th century medieval song whose words and melody were first published in 1352 in the Swedish/Finnish book “Piae Cantiones”. The song was called “Tempus adest floridum”, meaning “Now is the time of flowers”, referring to springtime. Wencelas wasn’t actually a King; he was a Duke, of Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. If you pay attention to the carol, though Wencelas gets all the credit, it’s actually the servant doing all the work.
In Canada, Boxing Day is a statutory holiday (as of 2005) only in the provinces of Ontario and Saskatchewan (though in Saskatchewan it’s decreed at the municipal levels.) People in other provinces will get it as a paid-day off work only if they are a federal government employee, or if they take it off as one of their allotted paid holiday days per year. ↩
In Scotland only since 1974. ↩
Stewart, Graham. Past notes: Industrial Revolution brought an end to Boxing Day. London: The Times. 26 December 2009. ↩