What Is Boxing Day? Everything to Know About the Holiday’s History

For many Americans, Boxing Day is that holiday that always shows up on the calendar between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. The day might otherwise be pretty mysterious to most people in the U.S., where the holiday is not widely observed, and where its origin and significance are not well known.

So what is Boxing Day anyway? Let’s start with the basics: Although Boxing Day sounds like something that would involve gloves, silky shorts, and a ring, it actually has nothing to do with the sport of boxing. Instead, the name derives from a time when wealthier people boxed up presents as offerings for the poor. While its altruistic origins still factor into how some celebrate Boxing Day in modern times, the holiday now encompasses sports, shopping, feasting on delicious food, and spending quality time with family and friends. (More on all that in a moment.)

Read on for more details on the history of Boxing Day and how it is celebrated around the world today.

When is Boxing Day?

Every year, the holiday falls on December 26. (Yes, that’s the day after Christmas, so it’s a date that’s easy to remember and hard to miss on the calendar during a crowded week of festivities.) However, when that date falls on a weekend, Boxing Day is observed on the following Monday. But no matter which specific date in December it lands on in a given year, it's a special occasion for gathering with loved ones during the busy holiday season.

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Why is it called Boxing Day?

The specific origins of Boxing Day are not universally agreed upon, but various origin stories help us unpack its history and original meaning.

The BBC explains that Boxing Day got its name when Queen Victoria held the throne in the 1800s, and is borne out of the tradition of wealthy families boxing up gifts to give to the poor. Since servants of aristocrats were required to work on Christmas, the following day became the time when their employers filled up boxes with gifts, money, and Christmas leftovers for them, much like a holiday bonus. Servants could then go home to share the gift boxes with their families.

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Another theory, according to History.com, is that the name arose from alms boxes placed in churches for the collection of donations for those in need. On December 26, clergy members would give these funds to the poor in honor of the feast of St. Stephen, a Christian martyr known for charitable acts. St. Stephen holds so much significance that in Ireland, Boxing Day is referred to as St. Stephen’s Day.

Yet another clue to the holiday’s moniker can be found in the song "Good King Wenceslas." TIME explains that this carol tells the tale of the Duke of Bohemia in the 10th century. On St. Stephen’s Day, he observed a poor man on his land, struggling to gather wood in the middle of a snowstorm. He was so moved by this sight that he gathered food and wine and delivered it to his door, inspiring a tradition.

With so many competing narratives, it’s difficult to know exactly how Boxing Day began. It’s clear, however, that what they all have in common are themes of charity, gift-giving, and celebrations, which have lived on and are present in how this holiday is observed today.

Where is Boxing Day celebrated?

Most commonly, the holiday is associated with the United Kingdom. Other countries that celebrate it are part of the commonwealth — that is, the nations that used to be British colonies. So, while Boxing Day isn't all that well-known in the U.S., in various other parts of the world — like in the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand — residents widely observe the holiday.

Boxing Day traditions:

These days, Boxing Day is regarded as a time to spend with family and friends, particularly those who you weren’t able to see on Christmas. This can include gathering for meals, drinking at pubs, or simply relaxing at home and enjoying the day off. In addition to the holiday’s emphasis on social connection, there are several other Boxing Day traditions that have evolved over the years.

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While Boxing Day still has nothing to do with the sport of boxing, it has now come to be associated with watching football. The BBC notes that before the days of television, Christmas Day would feature a full schedule of soccer matches (referred to as football in the U.K. and many parts of the world) for fans to attend after they had eaten. During the 1950’s however, attitudes towards playing sports on Christmas changed, and the last football match to take place on Christmas occurred in 1957. Since then, Boxing Day has become the time for sports fans to get their fix.

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Another facet of modern Boxing Day is shopping, since it’s now widely known as a day for massive sales. Similar to Black Friday in the US, plenty of shoppers will spend hours in line to snag some of the best discounts of the season, supplement the Christmas gifts they received, or possibly even return unwanted items. Since countries like the United Kingdom and Canada also celebrate Black Friday, Boxing Day shopping has become slightly less popular in recent years, but is still a main celebratory fixture.

Going back to its roots, charity continues to be an important aspect of Boxing Day celebrations. The Old Farmer’s Almanac explains that this includes everything from charity runs to the Boxing Day Dip, which is when adventurous participants dress in fancy clothes and take a dunk in the freezing cold sea. That polar plunge tradition is still alive and well in many places, though today's brave swimmers are more likely to be donning Santa hats or suits than their finest formal wear!

Finally, Boxing Day is also recognized as a day to overindulge on Christmas leftovers. Families might invite guests over for a casual lunch featuring baked ham, Christmas cake, turkey sandwiches, roasted vegetables and other festive foods enjoyed the day before. In that sense, you might have already been celebrating the spirit of Boxing Day for years, without even knowing it!

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