Americans may have noticed that in countries like the U.K. and Canada, they get the day after Christmas off. Of course, to them it's known as more than just the day after Christmas or Dec. 26; it's Boxing Day!
Boxing Day is a holiday that dates back centuries, and yet living in a country that does not celebrate it, we still may not know what it's all about. So, what is Boxing Day? Why is it named that, and how do people in other countries celebrate it?
There's actually a few answers to all of these questions.
What Is Boxing Day?
Boxing Day is an official public holiday (or bank holiday) on Dec. 26 celebrated by the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries. This includes Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. On a bank holiday, the workforce gets the day off. If Boxing Day falls on a Saturday or Sunday, generally the following Monday is recognized as a holiday with the day off.
In some European countries - Netherlands, Germany and Poland among them - Dec. 26 is known as a Second Christmas Day, also recognized as a legal holiday.
In addition, Dec. 26 is also known to some countries (like Ireland and select parts of Spain) as Saint Stephen's Day, a Christian day of commemoration for Saint Stephen, who is recognized as being the first Christian martyr.
Why Is It Called Boxing Day?
There is no one confirmed origin regarding the etymology of the term Boxing Day. But there are several theories and potential origin stories that can lead to the name, as well as dictate how the day has been celebrated in the past.
Perhaps the most commonly accepted explanation for the term Boxing Day relates to the phrase "Christmas box." The idea of a Christmas box dates back to the olden days of British aristocracy, as they were said to give their servants Dec. 26 off and give them some sort of gift, otherwise known as a Christmas box. This box could also include money and even food from the previous day's Christmas dinner. These may have been given to servants or to employees from their employers.
A different explanation involves a different sort of Christmas box, this one for charitable purposes as opposed to gifts for employees. Boxes would be open in a church for the season up to Christmas day where churchgoers could put monetary donations meant for the less fortunate. Then on Dec. 26, not so coincidentally a day the church already celebrated for the first Christian martyr, members of the clergy would then go around gifting the money in the box to the poor.
Regardless of which of these may be true, Boxing Day seems built on gift-giving and charity perhaps even before it first became recognized as a bank holiday (1871 in England).
How Is Boxing Day Celebrated?
Some may still celebrate Boxing Day by giving to the less fortunate, but the holiday has expanded and been commodified in a number of different ways.
Boxing Day in many countries has become a day for doorbuster sales, similar to an American day with its own potential etymologies: Black Friday. Boxing Day has become such a sales-heavy day for countries that celebrate it that some retailers now advertise Boxing Week. With worldwide Black Friday deals and monthlong holiday discounts leading up to Christmas, particularly online, Boxing Day is just one of many days with deals this time of year. But in the U.K., Australia and elsewhere, Boxing Day sales are still a big deal and a way many citizens spend their day off.
Boxing Day may resemble Black Friday in how people are willing to camp out for big sales, but it can also resemble Thanksgiving in one specific way: football! Much like how three national American football games keep the sport on TV all day on Thanksgiving, the U.K. has football games all day from the largest leagues in the country. On Boxing Day 2018, for example, there will be nine Premier League games being played including Liverpool v. Newcastle and Brighton v. Arsenal.
Since Boxing Day is the day after Christmas, it's common to make a meal of the leftovers. More than just reheating the food, it's not unheard of for families to make a buffet of them, or take the contents of the leftovers and turn them into a pie.
How Different Countries Celebrate Boxing Day
Not every country that celebrates Boxing Day deviates too much from the more common traditions. Canada, for example, doesn't seem to have many Canada-specific elements to its Boxing Day. But some countries have or have had their own traditions.
The U.K. has made hunting something of a Boxing Day tradition, but that has been stifled significantly since the Hunting Act of 2004 banned the act of using dogs to hunt for wildlife mammals. Prior to this, fox hunting had been a large Boxing Day tradition in the country. Since that act, British hunters have replaced fox hunting with "trail hunting," where hunters follow a trail as opposed to chasing actual animals. With an overwhelming majority of British citizens preferring that lethal fox hunting stay banned, it's unlikely there would be another change to this anytime soon.
Where the U.K. prefers to make football their choice of sport on Boxing Day, Australia goes in different directions. This is largely due to the fact that while the U.K. has begun their winter just several days before Boxing Day, Australia is in its summer. As such, the sports include cricket and, more specific to the warmer weather, yacht races. One notably famous one is the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, which starts in Sydney and goes to Hobart in Tasmania. This race has existed in Australia since 1945.
New Zealand is another country with warmer weather, giving citizens more outdoor options for how to spend their day off. Something they have in common with the U.K. on the holiday is horse racing, such as at Auckland Racing Club.
There are some differences to how countries celebrate Boxing Day, but ultimately even those differences fall into larger categories that they all share: sports, shopping and family.