Boxing Day (December 26th) explained
The 26th of December is Boxing Day, and it is primarily a British tradition, that is also observed in the commonwealth countries of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
The 26th of December is Boxing Day, and it is primarily a British tradition, that is also observed in the commonwealth countries of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. There is a lot of confusion as to what the day typically signifies. Is it called Boxing Day because of the Boxing Day Test, which is a cricket test match held in Melbourne, Victoria between Australia and an opposing national team that is touring Australia during the southern summer? Is it because of other sporting traditions, such as boxing tournaments or hunts? Or is it called Boxing Day because people box up unwanted presents and palm them off onto the less fortunate?
Or is it none of the above?
Well, the origins of the day are lost in the mists of time. There are plenty of theories as to what Boxing Day actually signifies. It’s widely accepted that it does have something to do with the giving of Christmas boxes, but what boxes? That’s a little harder to pin down. Some people theorise that the tradition began in churches in the Middle Ages when collection boxes for the poor would be set out. These boxes would be opened on the day after Christmas day, which is also called St. Stephen’s Day, in honour of a deacon who became the first Christian martyr after he was stoned to death in 36 AD. His feast day falls on the 26th of December. In Ireland, it is also called Wren Day, after the disturbing tradition of hunting down and killing wrens (a family of small brown passerine birds). The dead wrens would be mounted on poles which would then be carried from house to house, whilst singing the wren song. This tradition, mercifully, appears to have died out.
A group of mummers in Ireland celebrate St Stephen's Day or 'Wren's Day' on 26th December by processing from house to house with their instruments, and are rewarded with a glass of porter, circa 1955. (Photo by George Pickow/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Another school of thought claims that the day is named after the British aristocracy’s habit of presenting their servants with gifts and food in boxes on the 26th of December after their own celebrations were done. The servants, who worked on Christmas day, would finally be able to celebrate the holiday on Boxing Day and would take their gifts and their food (in boxes) to their own homes to celebrate with their families. This also ties in with the Christmas tradition of giving charitable donations in order to celebrate the holiday by sharing goodwill with less fortunate people because St. Stephen’s Day is the day on which a good Christian must help the less fortunate.
UNITED KINGDOM - CIRCA 1900: Festival in Marshfield, United Kingdom - The Marshfield Paper Boys festival, a pagan rite taking place on Boxing Day (day after Christmas) - a part of a project entitled "Men -trees". (Photo by Francois LE DIASCORN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Yet another theory centres on a 10th-century duke of Bohemia, Wenceslaus I (907–935). The name Wenceslas is a Latinised version of the old Czech language "Venceslav". The story goes that the duke saw a poor peasant struggling to gather firewood during a harsh winter snowstorm on the feast of St. Stephen’s. Horrified at this, he gathers together a feast of food and wine, and pine logs, and walks into the snowstorm to the peasant’s house to deliver them. The Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas" (written in 1853 by John Mason Neale) is about this story (and it ends with this: Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing). Wenceslas was, during his lifetime, only a duke, but Holy Roman Emperor Otto I (962–973) posthumously "conferred on [Wenceslas] the regal dignity and title" and that is why he is referred to as a king. He is not to be confused with King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia (Wenceslaus I Premyslid), who lived more than three centuries later.
Two boggans fighting each other during the traditional Boxing Day ceremony at Haxey in Lincolnshire, circa 1955. (Photo by George Pickow/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Celebrating Boxing Day
Boxing Day is celebrated in a wide variety of ways. Notably, the Boxing Day sales spring to mind. This is part of the commercialism that we see around the season, and stores and brands often offer hefty discounts that shoppers often take advantage of, waiting in lines for hours in often inclement weather. I assume it’s a chance to shop for the things one hoped one would get for Christmas, and did not, although a quick canvas amongst my friends revealed that most already took advantage of the Black Friday sales this year.
Church Street, Liverpool, 1993
Apart from the sales, the United Kingdom (although this has now spread to other parts of Europe) plays host to the Boxing Day Dips, where people dressed in fancy dress plunge into the icy waters of the North Sea. The largest such dip is organised by the Lions Club of Sunderland; their website proclaims: "The 'Boxing Day Dip' takes place on our wonderful coastline at Seaburn Beach and has become a part of Sunderland's history. It is organised by Sunderland Lions Club and is an occasion for the people of the North East to dress up in all manner of fancy dress, take a dip in the North Sea, raise money for charity and blow the Christmas cobwebs away."
Boxing Day Dip in Redcar, 26th December 1994.
Boxing Day is also synonymous with sports; according to Vice’s article about Boxing Day and football from 2014: “Of the 92 fully professional teams in England's Football League, there are 46 live matches. Even in the Conference, England's fifth and sixth tiers, where many teams are semi-pro, every club is at it. In the Southern Hemisphere, things are just as festive and equally sporty. The Melbourne Cricket Ground, the fabled, 160-year-old temple to cricket, is full: Australia is taking on India in the annual Boxing Day Test. Similar matches, in addition to an uncountable number of other sporting events, are taking place in New Zealand and South Africa.” Distressingly, the Boxing Day hunt still takes place in the United Kingdom where men and women on horses, along with several baying dogs, hunt down defenceless little foxes. There are many widespread protests against the hunts, but the tradition still persists.
Anti-blood sports campaigners turned out in force for what they hope will be one of the last Boxing Day hunting programmes, in Maldon,Essex today (Friday). Traditionally, December 26 is the most important date in the hunting calendar and has seen fierce clashes between hunters and protesters. Photo by Michael Stephens.
Finally, in keeping with the season of excess, copious amounts of alcohol are usually consumed on Boxing Day, as evidenced by a conversation with a British friend. When I inquired how he would be spending the Boxing Day holiday, he informed me that he would be “drinking too much and watching the cricket on the telly”. Sounds good to me.