In Depth

What is Boxing Day and how did it get its name?

Now a day of sports and sales, the public holiday has medieval roots

For most people in the UK, Boxing Day is full of sport, sales and leftover turkey. But what are the origins of this public holiday, and where is it celebrated?

What is Boxing Day?

Historians disagree on exactly how and when Boxing Day was given its name. According to travel writer Bill Bryson, the roots of Boxing Day go back to medieval times, when alms boxes in churches would be opened and the donations given to the poor.

Traditionally it was the day of the year when servants and tradespeople were presented with gifts (or "boxes") from their employers. The boxes were known in France as “tirelire” and are referred to in Randle Cotgrave's A Dictionarie of the French and English tongues from 1611:

“Tirelire, a Christmas box; a box having a cleft on the lid, or in the side, for money to enter it; used in France by begging Fryers, and here by Butlers, and Prentices, etc.”

A similar theory is that Boxing Day originated in the late Roman-early Christian era, when metal boxes placed outside churches were used to collect special gifts and donations tied to the Feast of Saint Stephen, which in Latin ecclesiastical tradition falls on 26 December.

Others tie it to the days when British servants were given boxes of leftovers and a day off after preparing and serving Christmas dinner for their lords and ladies. Samuel Pepys noted the existence of such boxes in his diary in 1663.

And some say Boxing Day was named after the sealed box containing money for good luck found on board great sailing ships during the Age of Exploration. If the voyage was a success, the box was given to a priest, opened at Christmas, and the contents distributed to the needy.

As an official holiday in the UK, Boxing Day only dates back to the 1800s, when there are numerous recordings of employers giving their staff Christmas presents, or “boxes”, to celebrate the season.

When and where is it marked?

Boxing Day is normally marked on 26 December, the day after Christmas Day. This year it falls on a Thursday, so most workers across the UK will get the day off.

It is marked in the UK and other Commonwealth countries across the world, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. However, it is not widely celebrated in the US, with many people returning to work on the day after Christmas. In Ireland, 26 December is a public holiday, but it is called St Stephen’s Day to commemorate the Christian martyr St Stephen.

How do we celebrate these days?

In recent years, Boxing Day has become closely associated with many sports. Horse racing is particularly popular with meetings all over the country, while a full programme of football fixtures is also played.

Nowadays, the day is used to spend time with family and friends, especially those who were away for the big day itself.Many attractions around London that were closed for Christmas reopen on Boxing Day. This year there’s the opportunity to skate around the Natural History Museum Ice Rink or finally tick off attending the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland.

In addition, people use the day to shop. Last year, an estimated 27.6 million people indulged in some retail therapy on Boxing Day – 17.8 million at the nation’s shopping centres and high streets, and 9.8 million searching for bargains online – spending a “record-breaking £4.75bn” says the Daily Mirror. That “splurge” topped the previous year’s £4.5bn, the paper said.

Around the UK, there are odd traditions associated with Boxing Day, such as the Boxing Day swims, whereby participants submerge themselves in ice-cold water. 

Tenby’s famous Boxing Day dip in Pembrokeshire is celebrating its 49th year – and climate change is the fancy dress theme for 2019 – while spectators and swimmers will gather by the Grand Hotel, Seaburn, a mile north of Sunderland, for the traditional Boxing Day Dip in the bracing North Sea. Again, fancy dress is the order of the day.What is on this Boxing Day?

If you are looking to head out on Boxing Day, Christmas at Kew is always a grand affair, with a mile-long, twinkling trail leading visitors to Kew Gardens in south-west London past singing trees, kaleidoscopic projections and giant flora-inspired lights.

If you are around London, Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland is also open until 5 January, so if you are not Christmas-ed out, you can get another fix of festivity. The National Trust has also picked out “12 Walks of Christmas” ranging from Cornwall to Cumbria, giving us all a much-needed opportunity to work off that second serving of pigs in blankets.

If staying at home is more your style, there is a whole host of football matches on television, with the nine Premier League matches on Boxing Day this year being screened live on Amazon Prime for the first time.

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