It was in 2014 when my son left for Canada. Before coming to Bangladesh in January 2016, he told me that he would go shopping on Boxing Day. I was a little perturbed. What has a “boxing day” got to do with shopping? I kept thinking and thought maybe boxing was very popular. People will go to watch the game, so the shopping malls will be a little empty and it will be easier to shop (smile).
I know, some of you must be laughing and why not? For those who know, it’s funny. But hold on a second. Many people, I believe, have the same idea as mine: ‘It’s a day when a boxing game is scheduled.’
Despite having the word ‘boxing’ in its name, this 19th-century holiday has nothing to do with the sport of boxing. Boxing Day falls on Dec 26, the day after Christmas Day. It’s a public holiday in countries that observe it: many European countries, the United Kingdom and some Commonwealth countries like Australia, New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago and Canada.
The term Boxing Day is of British origin. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first recorded in 1833 but the official reason for the name hasn’t been determined. There are two main theories, both of which are related to charity.
Some believe that it’s traditionally a day when boxes of gifts are given to helping hands, tradespeople and the poor. As the service of the helping hands (servants) was required for the Christmas Day celebrations by their employers, they were allowed a day off on Dec 26 for their own observance of the holiday. They used to receive special presents from their employers on that day. The presents given to the poor and helping hands were called a 'Christmas box'; hence the name Boxing Day. The practice of giving bonuses to service employees has continued, although it’s now often done before rather than after Christmas Day.
Some believe that it got its name from the fact that alms boxes placed in churches for collection of donations on Christmas Day were traditionally opened the next day. The Clergy members would then distribute the contents of the boxes among the poor and needy people. Some churches still open these boxes on Boxing Day, which is also the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr known for his acts of charity.
Interestingly, one of the earliest records of these box gifts dates from 1663. The English Parliamentarian Samuel Pepys wrote in an entry in his diary that he sent a coach and messenger to his shoemaker to deliver ‘something to the boys’ box for Christmas’ along with the money to cover his bill.
The name also refers to a marine tradition. Ships, while sailing, used to carry a sealed box with money for good luck. If the voyage was successful, the box was given to a priest to be opened at Christmas and the money was given to the poor.
There’s also a reference to the Romans bringing the idea first to the UK of collecting money in boxes for the betting games they played during their winter celebrations.
In the Netherlands, some collection boxes made out of rough pottery were shaped like pigs. Possibly this is where we get the term 'Piggy Bank.'
There are other stories too regarding the name. It’s believed that in the 10th century, a day after Christmas, the duke of Bohemia was surveying his land when he noticed a poor man trying to gather firewood in a blizzard. He was so moved that he went to the man's house with a box of food, wine, and other items.
Whatever the theories, almost all revolve around the theme of charity.
The practice of almsgiving on Dec 26 particularly has changed as these gifts and charity are now, mostly, given in the week before Christmas. But the name, ‘Boxing Day,’ lives on even today.
In Canada and other Commonwealth countries, many families normally wait until Boxing Day to open their gift boxes.
As Boxing Day also coincides with St. Stephen’s Day, being the patron saint of horses, it’s common to see sporting events like horse races, rugby, and fox hunting on Dec 26. (In 2004, however, fox hunting was prohibited). So, Boxing Day has also become a day of sport.
See? Boxing Day has nothing to do with the jabs, hooks, crosses and punches of boxing!
In Ireland, the holiday is sometimes called ‘Wren Day,’ because in the past a wren would be killed and displayed on a pole. Then, it was paraded through the town by the ‘Wren Boys’ dressed up in costumes made of straw asking for donations from their neighbours in exchange for a wren’s feather, which people believed brought good luck. The tradition is still a part of the day’s celebrations.
South Africa renamed the holiday ‘Goodwill Day’ in 1994 to ‘sever ties to a colonial past,’ according to Cape Town Magazine. Some countries, including Poland and the Netherlands, call it ‘Second Christmas Day.’ In Germany, it’s known as 'Zweiter Feiertag' (second celebration).
In the countries where they observe Boxing Day, if Dec 26 falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the following Monday is declared an official public holiday; if it falls on a Sunday or a Monday, the holiday is observed on the following Tuesday. Moreover, when Boxing Day falls on a Sunday or Saturday that is a non-working day, workers are entitled to a holiday with pay on a working day immediately preceding or following the general holiday.
Since it’s a holiday, some of the popular Boxing Day activities include spending time with family or friends, having meals together; going outside to exercise or for a walk; or simply relaxing at home and enjoying the day by reading a book, or relaxing with the leftovers from the previous day with wine, along with the Christmas cake or some other dessert; watching Christmas movies and dozing off in the comfort of the couch.
Charity and giving to the poor is one way to honour the holiday’s origin and is still a big part of Boxing Day. Some people participate in charity runs. Other people donate the unneeded Christmas gifts they’ve received to the poor, or fill a donation box with canned food, basic commodities and clothing.
Over the years, it has become a very popular shopping day throughout the countries that observe this day. The holiday starts with what is known as ‘Boxing Week,’ during which sellers try to woo shoppers into buying the old stock along with the new ones. The market is flooded with Christmas gifts and products with huge sales. There are a lot of discounts for almost everything. Shopkeepers and big industries offer gift packages with reasonable prices and free items with most purchases. Naturally, these offers draw big crowds to the markets.
Americans do not typically celebrate Boxing Day. But, In recent years, the American tradition of ‘Black Friday’ with dramatic sales the day after Thanksgiving, each November, has spread to the United Kingdom and Canada and has largely overshadowed Boxing Week. This is quite unusual because Britain and Canada celebrate Thanksgiving in a different month but observe Black Friday on the same day as the US.
Whatever the case, it does give consumers a great opportunity to buy gifts. The best part is buyers get the bargains at fair prices. So they can afford to buy lots of gifts for charity, for their near and dear ones, as well as, for themselves.
Giving charity gives a sense of fulfilment that no other thing does. Sharing gifts with friends and family makes everyone happy and rewarding yourself with gifts is self-gratifying.
Boxing Day gives you the opportunity to buy more, and spending less. So what are you waiting for? Get your wallets and purses ready.
Happy Boxing Day!
[Tasneem Hossain is a multilingual poet, columnist, op-ed and fiction writer, translator and training consultant. She is the Director of the Continuing Education Centre, Bangladesh.]
1. Boxing Day — the day after Christmas, WhyChristmas.com.
2. Klein, Christopher, Why is the day after Christmas called Boxing Day? History, August 22, 2018
3. Pai, Tania, Boxing Day Explained, Vox, December 21, 2020