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What's Boxing Day? | The British Holiday Explained and How It's Celebrated

a photo of Santa wearing boxing gloves

No, it's got nothing to do with boxing gloves...

For people in the US, December 26 is one of the most disappointing days of the year. For the last few weeks, everything has been leading up to Christmas. And all that hype comes crashing down the day after Christmas.

However, the Brits have made the day a holiday in itself, and have made the holiday spirit crash a little less painful.

History of Boxing Day

While the exact origins of Boxing Day aren’t really known, the most widely believed origin story dates back to Britain in the 1800s. The day after Christmas became the day when servants and the poor received gifts. Servants received gifts the day after because they typically had to work during the holidays serving, cooking, and cleaning for the rich as they had their celebrations. And the poor received them the day after because that’s when the church’s donation boxes were opened and distributed for the poor.

Despite its origin, Boxing Day was first coined by Charles Dickens in 1833 and finally established as an official holiday in 1871.

December 26 is Also St. Stephen's Day

an icon of St. Stephen being stoned to death

December 26 is also celebrated as St. Stephen’s Day. St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, and St. Stephen’s Day is typically celebrated with family and friends, but mainly with feasts. And a St. Stephen’s Day feast is also mentioned in a Christmas carol about a 10th-century Bohemian duke... Good King Wenceslas

an illustration of King Wenceslas and his servant in the winter storm

The story goes that he saw a peasant collecting firewood during a snowstorm and was moved by the sight. So he collects food, drink, and firewood in a box and treks through the snowstorm to reach the poor man’s house.

How is December 26 Celebrated in Other Countries?

In Ireland, it was believed that it was a wren (a bird) that had betrayed St. Stephen and led to his death. The idea of birds betraying people was also reinforced after the Vikings raided villages on St. Stephen’s Day in 750 AD. And to get rid of the Vikings, the Irish banded together to attack a Viking camp. They were betrayed when a wren tipped the Vikings off to the attack.

And so every December 26, or Wren Day, Irish children go out and throw stones at wrens, kill them, put them on sticks, and parade them around the town for money. They would then use this money to throw a party for the whole town. The practice of killing wrens has died out, but it’s an interesting activity to... try out?

Irish Wren Day boys carrying the bird tree parade

Most former British colonies and a decent chunk of Europe celebrate Boxing Day on December 26, including Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. South Africa actually calls it "The Day of Goodwill" to sever ties with British colonialism.

How is Boxing Day Celebrated?

Today, Boxing Day is celebrated in many ways. Typically, it’s a big shopping day in Britain, kind of like Black Friday after Thanksgiving.

a family goes christmas shopping

Could you imagine working retail that day? On one hand, you have to deal with customers returning the stupid Christmas presents their families got them. And on the other hand, customers are buying out the entire store. It’s even more weird when you realize that Britain and Canada celebrate Black Friday on the same day as the US but don’t celebrate Thanksgiving the day before.

However, two events are typically the day's dominant celebration.


a photo of a fox hunt with hunters riding horses up a street with hounds

Boxing Day is a major day for hunting. Primarily fox hunting. Although fox hunting has been slightly changed since 2005, it still remains a tradition on Boxing Day. However, there’s a different sport that’s a little more popular with the people: soccer, er, football.

Football (Soccer if Your American)

a photo of football soccer players

Like in America on Thanksgiving, football is the big sport on Boxing Day. Except it’s not American football. In Britain, big football games were held on Christmas Day, with fans popping in to watch. Now, Christmas Day is dedicated to spending time with friends and family, and Boxing Day is now the main sports day. Most of all the football clubs in Britain play on Boxing Day for everyone to watch.

And according to Sporting News, there will be 14 hours of football gameplay this year.

Adding up all the games, there will be 14 hours of soccer played in the Premier League on December 26 this year (plus stoppage time, of course).

In Australia, cricket is the big sport to watch on Boxing Day. Test cricket, the "purest" form of cricket, is usually held by Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Horse racing is also another popular sport in Britain, with the King George VI Chase being the second most popular race of the year.

Interested in Discovering More About Australia? Read about that weird time Australia banned the word "mate" in this story

The Other Ways…