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Allow us to let you in on a little secret: Many Brits prefer Boxing Day to Christmas Day. While December 25 comes with busy preparations and high expectations, Boxing Day, which takes place the day after, is often far more relaxed (not least because cold turkey sandwiches are much easier to prepare than Christmas dinner with all the fixings). Make no mistake, Boxing Day is a very big deal in the U.K., but if you’re unfamiliar with the origins and customs of the December 26 holiday, here are six interesting facts you might not know.
Boxing Day Isn’t Always a Public Holiday in the U.K.
Strictly speaking, December 26 isn’t always a public holiday. But that’s only the case when either Christmas Day or Boxing Day falls on a weekend. If that happens, either the Monday following the weekend or the Monday and Tuesday following the weekend become the bank holidays. Even then, the festivities take place on December 26. The Victorians officially coined the term Boxing Day, which first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in the 1830s — although the day wasn’t officially a public holiday until 1871.
The Origins of the Name Boxing Day Are Unclear
The Victorians might have invented the name, but no one has a definitive answer as to why — except that it has nothing to do with the sport. Instead, it most likely has a connection with boxes, though not the cardboard kind. A “Christmas box” is the name Brits use for a monetary gift to those who have provided services throughout the year. Across the country, envelopes await mailmen, window cleaners, garbage collectors, hairdressers, and even milkmen and paper boys — for those who still have a delivery.
The tradition of giving tips likely began in the Middle Ages, when church parishioners collected money to give to the poor, who opened their gifts on St. Stephen’s Day (or the Feast of Stephen), which is described in the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.” The practice has been documented as far back as the 17th century, when the famous diarist Samuel Pepys wrote on December 19, 1663, that he “gave something to the boys’ box against Christmas.” These days, unfortunately, the tradition is on the decline.
Brits Celebrate Boxing Day with Certain Rituals
Unlike Christmas Day in the U.K., there’s less of an expectation to host family on Boxing Day, unless they’ve stayed over. Instead, it’s an opportunity to meet friends or family members for a brisk walk in the countryside after all that food the previous day. Speaking of food: Boxing Day is also a time for cold turkey sandwiches, turkey curry, or anything else that gets rid of the mountain of leftover meat.
It’s also a day that’s synonymous with watching sports. Football (soccer) fixtures draw large crowds up and down the country, as do rugby matches. It’s an important day for horse racing, too: Kempton Park Racecourse hosts the King George VI Chase annually on December 26, and there are events at Wetherby, Sedgefield, Huntingdon, Market Rasen, and Wincanton as well.
It’s the Best Time of Year to Bag a Bargain
Those who don’t wish to walk might be tempted by winter sales. In past years, these sales traditionally kicked off in January, but retailers have moved them up to Boxing Day, which has become the U.K.’s version of Black Friday. (Some sales start as early as Christmas Eve.) This is when the year’s biggest bargains can typically be found — if you haven’t had enough consumerism in the run-up to Christmas, this is a popular way to spend at least part of the day.
Many Cities Host Charity Fundraisers and Eccentric Events
Boxing Day is also an opportunity to raise money for good causes. In many cities and towns along the southern coast of England, from Mersea Island, Essex, in the east to Charlestown, Cornwall, in the west, locals gather for Boxing Day dips in waters with temperatures that can fall to near freezing — all in the name of raising significant sums for charity.
In East Lancashire, a 40-year-old tradition called fell running (off-road running that largely takes place uphill) occurs at the Whinberry Naze Dash. Many of the hill runners don fancy dress, and Santa is in attendance. Further south, Shaldon in Devon stages its annual three-legged race. The circuit loops the village, taking in all six pubs, and colorful costumes are de rigueur, regardless of whether you are participating or spectating.
Since 1961, locals in Matlock, Derbyshire, have been fashioning homemade rafts to race each other in costume on the River Derwent and raise money for charity. Previous years have featured crews of Muppets, Flintstones, nuns, penguins, and pirates. In contrast, the residents of Grantchester, Cambridgeshire, opt to roll barrels up and down their streets in a relay race tradition.
One of the oldest Boxing Day customs, the Fishermen and Firemen’s Charity Football Match, takes place in Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast. The tradition began in 1893, when a tragedy at sea left many of the town’s residents widows and orphans. Then, as now, money raised goes to the needy. Each player must wear a top hat during this comical event; if it falls off, a free kick is awarded to the opposing side. However, as the game is played after everyone has been to the pub, it’s often the case that no one remembers to keep score and the match is deemed a draw.
Britain Isn’t the Only Country to Celebrate Boxing Day
As a result of the former British Empire and its continued influence through ties with Commonwealth countries, the U.K. is far from alone in celebrating Boxing Day as a public holiday. In Australia, sporting events are popular, including the annual Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race. Across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand, Boxing Day signals an exodus to the coast and countryside for Kiwis — it often marks the start of their summer vacations. Citizens of Bermuda, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago also have Boxing Day off, as do people in Nigeria, Ghana, and Uganda.
Hong Kong retains the holiday despite the 1997 handover from Britain to China. Canada also observes the holiday, though not nationwide; Quebec and Nunavut’s governments don’t honor it as an official holiday. Much of Europe marks it as a second Christmas Day without specifically calling it Boxing Day — this is the case in Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, for example. And other countries have rebranded Boxing Day to make its purposes clearer: South Africa renamed it in 1994 as the Day of Goodwill, and in the Solomon Islands it’s known as the National Day of Thanksgiving.