What Is Boxing Day, and How Did It Get Its Name?

Unwrapped gifts under Christmas tree

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

When Christmas day passes, the celebration continues—at least in some countries. In the United Kingdom, as well as a number of other countries that used to be part of the British Empire—such as Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada—Boxing Day is a bank holiday or public holiday that became official in 1871. Boxing Day is traditionally recognized on December 26, but if that day falls on a Saturday, the celebration moves to the following Monday. If December 26 is a Sunday, Boxing Day is observed on the following Tuesday.

Fact

Boxing Day coincides with another holiday, St. Stephen's Day, that's observed in many of the same countries. St. Stephen's Day honors a Christian martyr who was stoned to death in 36 AD.

Why Is It Called Boxing Day?

The term "Boxing Day" was first recorded in 1833, but the official origin of the name has never been determined. There are, however, plenty of theories, which include:

  • The name is a reference to holiday gifts. A "Christmas Box" in Britain is a name for a Christmas present. Boxing Day was traditionally a day off for servants and the day when they received a gift from their employer. The servants would also go home on Boxing Day to give gifts to their families.
  • The name is a reference to charity drives. A box to collect money for the poor traditionally and placed in Churches on Christmas day and opened the next day, or Boxing Day.
  • The name refers to a nautical tradition. When setting sail, ships would carry a sealed box containing money for good luck. If the voyage was a success, the box was given to a priest, opened at Christmas, and the contents then given to the poor. 
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Popular Boxing Day Activities

For some people, Boxing Day is a time to spend with family or friends, particularly those not seen on Christmas Day itself. Many people will gather for meals, spend time outside, or simply relax at home and enjoy the day off. Traditional Boxing Day food includes baked ham, pease pudding, and mince pies with brandy butter, along with a slice of Christmas cake or another dessert.

To some extent, Boxing Day is considered a shopping holiday, with stores offering reduced prices for Boxing Day sales, similar to Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving in the United States. However, the number of people who shopped on Boxing Day has declined.

Additionally, Boxing Day has recently become synonymous with watching sports. A number of leagues in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland hold football and rugby matches, while Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa are known for cricket matches on Boxing Day. Other sports that typically occur on Boxing Day include horse racing and ice hockey. Fox hunts are traditionally a part of Boxing Day activities; however, fox hunting with dogs was banned in the UK in 2004. Hunters still gather, dressed resplendently in red hunting coats to the sound of the hunting horn but now follow artificially laid trails.