The United Kingdom and many of its former colonies celebrate an obscure and confusing holiday on December 26th, called Boxing Day. The search phrase “what is Boxing Day” on Google returns 5.7M results. It’s clear, a lot of people have no idea what Boxing Day is. For those of you who need it, here’s Boxing Day explained.
Boxing Day Explained: It’s Not About Boxing!
What is Boxing Day? A common mistake is to think that people watch the sport of Boxing on Boxing Day. The word “boxing” in Boxing Day refers to a Christmas gift box sometimes called a “Christmas Box” in England.
Boxing Day History: Servants Worked On Christmas
Most people have Christmas Day off from work, but years ago this wasn’t true for household staff like cooks, maids, and butlers. They would actually work extra hard on Christmas Day making sure their employers had a nice holiday.
In appreciation of their hard work, household staff would receive a ‘Christmas Box’ from the family full of regifted Christmas gifts and leftover food to enjoy with their families on the day after Christmas. So, the day after Christmas became the day that servant staff would celebrate Christmas with their families.
Boxing Day Is A National Holiday In The UK
Many predominately Christian countries celebrate Christmas Day. But in the United Kingdom and several of its former colonies, including Australia and Canada, Boxing Day is also a national holiday.
Spending Boxing Day With Family And Friends
Over the years, Boxing Day has become a special day to spend with family and friends. Usually, this will accompany extra efforts to see people that you did not see on Christmas Day. Attending sporting events like horse racing, foxhunts and even boxing matches (that’s confusing), were all traditional Boxing Day activities. In recent years, Boxing Day activities typically include group shopping events and returning unwanted Christmas gifts.
Strange British Events
Boxing Day is also an opportunity to participate in silly English activities. For example, swimming in the icy cold English Channel or themed fun runs are all common on Boxing Day.
St. Stephen’s Day
In various countries from Europe to Eastern Asia, Boxing Day is called “St. Stephen’s Day“. Saint Stephen was stoned to death for believing in Jesus. Some of the countries that observe St. Stephen’s Day include Alsace-Moselle, Austria, the Balearic Islands, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Catalonia (Spain), Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Montenegro, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Ukraine, and Switzerland.
Stoning Birds & The Wren Boys
Until recently, a strange violent tradition called the “Wren Boys” was practiced in Ireland on Boxing Day. On the day after Christmas, also called “Wren Day”, Irish boys would stone small Wren birds to death and then carry their dead bodies on decorated sticks around town asking for money. The boys would wear old clothes, straw hats and decorate their faces with burnt corks. The stoning of these harmless songbirds was meant to represent what happened to St. Stephen. The tradition is still practiced today, but without the violence. Boys will now dress up as the Wren Boys and parade around town asking for charity donations.
Why were the wren birds so persecuted? Legend says that St. Stephen was hiding in a bush and that a wren bird betrayed him alerting his pursuers.