Each year, on December 26th, several countries around the world celebrate a holiday known as Boxing Day. It is officially recognized in Commonwealth countries (places like the United Kingdom, Australia, and our neighbors to the north, Canada). We Americans see this holiday on our calendars, but few of us know what Boxing Day represents.
In fact, even though this holiday has been officially recognized in the UK and Canada since 1871, many of the people who celebrate it each year are unclear on what it means or how it came about. We’ll give you a hint: Boxing Day definitely isn’t about fighting!
Here at the Farmers’ Almanac, we love holidays—especially those with mysterious origins! Here’s how people around the world celebrate Boxing Day, and explore some of the legends that may have given rise to this holiday.
Good King Wenceslas
The traditional Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” tells the story of one of the possible origins of Boxing Day. If you’re unfamiliar with this song, listen below and read along with the lyrics. The events of this carol take place on December 26th, which also happens to be the Feast of St. Stephen. In the song, Wenceslas, a 10th century Duke of Bohemia, sees a poor man and he decides to help this man. The Duke enlists the help of his page in gathering food, wine, and firewood, boxing it all up so that they can take it to the peasant. Then, Wenceslas and his page brave a blizzard to deliver the boxes of goods.
Legend holds that Wenceslas’ actions started a tradition in which churchgoers would donate money during the Advent. Then, on the day after Christmas, the boxes of money would be broken open and distributed among the poor. After decades of carrying out this (un)boxing tradition, December 26 became known as Boxing Day.
Employee Bonus Day?
Another tradition says that it originates from the practice of the aristocracy giving their employees bonuses and presents on the day after Christmas. As the stories go, employees would take their boxes home and open them up with their families, hence Boxing Day.
What We Do Know About Boxing Day
We may not know precisely how this holiday came to be, but we do know one thing: The first recorded mention of Boxing Day comes from a 1830s version of the Oxford English Dictionary. The definition given is “The first week-day after Christmas-day, observed as a holiday on which post-men, errand-boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas-box.”
In other words, according to this definition, Boxing Day is a day to recognize all the service people in your life by leaving them Christmas presents. This year, if you want to celebrate Boxing Day the right way, make sure to leave a box of goodies for delivery people, the sanitation worker, and all the other people that make life easier for everyone.
Modern Boxing Day Celebrations
For most people, today’s version of Boxing Day isn’t about ancient traditions or giving out piles of presents. Instead, it’s an official bank holiday, and a day of rest and relaxation (although many retailers hold “Boxing Day Sales”). After all, Christmas is over and there’s nothing left to do but eat leftovers, play with the presents you opened the day before, and enjoy a day off from work or school. In the United Kingdom, there are many Boxing Day events, including fox hunts that draw thousands of spectators, sporting events, dips in the sea while dressed as Santa, fun runs, charity events, and parades.
Here in the United States, we may not mark the actual holiday, but for many of us, it’s still a day to relax with family, knowing that the Holidays are drawing to a close.
Amber Kanuckel is a freelance writer from rural Ohio who loves all things outdoors. She specializes in home, garden, environmental, and green living topics.