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What is Boxing Day?

By Sherry Holetzky
Updated May 23, 2024
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Also referred to as St. Stephen’s Day, Boxing Day is a holiday that began in England but is also celebrated in other Commonwealths. It was generally celebrated the day after Christmas or the next weekday after the holiday. Some claim that the event was intended as a way of getting rid of gift boxes and other holiday trappings that cluttered the home following Christmas. While most of the history of Boxing Day hinges on speculation, this claim does not appear to be supported. A popular urban legends website states that it is actually false.

The general consensus is that Boxing Day was a day to show appreciation for those who provided services to wealthier individuals as well as a time to provide for the less fortunate. While those who shared similar class status exchanged gifts on Christmas Day, the underclass received gifts on Boxing Day. These gifts were often packed up in boxes, perhaps Christmas gift boxes, so they could be carried easily. This may be where the name Boxing Day originated.

However, there are other explanations, including the possible use of “banks” or boxes made of clay that were broken open on Boxing Day to reveal a holiday bonus of sorts, from an employer to employee or master to servant. Another possibility is that collection boxes, where donations were made for the poor, were opened on Boxing Day and the donations handed out to the needy. This may be where modern day drop boxes to collect donations for charity got their start.

The types of gifts given to service personnel frequently included clothing, food, or other staples. Could it be that the wealthier classes waited until the day after Christmas in order to engage in an early form of what is known today as “regifting”? It is possible that people of upper classes may have sorted through their Christmas gifts and given the items they didn’t want or need to service personnel. Perhaps they gave away items that were replaced by new Christmas gifts.

Money was also given as a gift on Boxing Day in some cases, especially to those who had families of their own to care for. This may have helped create the tradition of tipping service personnel in modern times. Many people give tips during the holiday season to hair stylists, mail carriers, house cleaners, and others who provide a service, even in countries where Boxing Day is not celebrated.

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Discussion Comments

By anon310770 — On Dec 26, 2012

I was told, when living in London, that Boxing Day had something to do with the Boxer Rebellion.

By aLFredo — On Dec 23, 2011

It is kind of sad that now such a once meaningful tradition has become so materialistic, as it seems it has mostly been reduced for yet another excuse to shop.

I mean I think it is great that there is at least one day a year where products are exceptionally discounted, so that even people with little income may have a chance to afford a few things. But I think instead of just discounting one day, discounts should be given on a more regular of a basis.

It is truly sad that people will fight and even kill for a thing. I think if there were discounts on a daily basis, then people wouldn't go so crazy when they see a discount.

I know everyone needs to make a profit to stay afloat though also, but there has got to be a way to lower prices on a more regular basis, so people don’t go absolutely crazy even one day a year.

I know there are certain deals that go on around other holidays, like Memorial Day, and sometimes stores have deals for seemingly no reason at all, but they obviously aren’t having as good of deals those days as they do on Black Friday and/or Boxing Day.

By Speechie — On Dec 22, 2011

@andee - Don't feel so bad, I thought Boxing Day had something to do with the sport boxing as well. Boy, was I way off!

I probably wouldn't have even guessed any of the true reasons for this holiday.

It does not surprise me too much that there are so many different ways that people celebrated this holiday. As with most traditions, it starts as one simple thing, and then people change it according to their needs/wants, especially if it involves making money.

I like the older traditions of Boxing Day, giving to the less fortunate. I think this is something we should do whenever we can, not just on one day, but it is good to also have a day set aside for it too.

By orangey03 — On Dec 22, 2011

@andee – Don't feel bad. I didn't know what Boxing Day was, either.

My parents also were misinformed. They told me that it was the day that Canadians boxed up their unwanted gifts and took them back to the store for a refund or exchange.

I asked them what it meant when I was little, and I think they just made up something on the spot. It is somewhat close to the real thing, but it is probably just an amalgamation of things they have heard in their lives.

For many years, I pictured a bunch of Canadians hectically boxing up items and rushing to the stores on this day. What they are more likely to be doing is opening boxes of items that they just purchased at deep discounts.

By lonelygod — On Dec 21, 2011

@manykitties2 - I have a lot of family in Canada and I love going up there for Boxing Day as it is quite the experience. I think one of the best things to be on the lookout for is the Futureshop Boxing Day flyers if you are looking for great deals on electronics. They really can't be beat when it comes to door crasher specials on the big day.

My uncle used to joke that I would arrive just in time for the Boxing Day tsunami and would get swept up in all the madness. I suppose since I like to shop I don't mind the chaos. Stores are usually packed that day and I must admit that grabbing those deeply discounted items is very much a contact sport.

By manykitties2 — On Dec 21, 2011

Boxing Day in Canada is still probably the biggest shopping day of the year. For us it is quite similar to the American Black Friday where everything gets sold off at a really deep discount. The general consensus here is that despite whatever origins are assigned to the holiday, Boxing Day has become all about shopping.

In Canada it is not surprising to see Boxing Day flyers start to get delivered in early December. A lot of people I know actually put off their big holiday purchases to get the great deals the day after Christmas. I know more than a few people that have gotten I.O.U.s for Christmas on high-end electronics. Most adults I know are more than willing to wait an extra 24 hours for that new flatscreen TV.

By sapphire12 — On Dec 20, 2011

It seems to me that if Boxing Day was a really old tradition, or related to things like employee time off, it would have a better history in British literature.

I studied Brit Lit in college and teach it in high school; one of our selections is A Christmas Carol, undoubtedly a holiday classic, and not so old, having been published in the 1840s. There is no mention of Boxing Day in the text, not by Scrooge or by his badly treated employee, Bob Cratchit. I would have thought this, or other classic British literature, would mention it more if it was a well kept tradition.

By watson42 — On Dec 20, 2011

@andee- Among a lot of Americans, I think your view of Boxing Day is not so unusual. I always knew about it because my dad is English, but most of my friends and classmates growing up had no idea. At the same time, We never even celebrated Christmas and Boxing Day so very specially; if anything, Dec 26th was a day to make food out of the holiday leftovers, bake some extra Christmas cookies, and meet up with a few friends.

Now that there are a lot of Boxing Day sales, online as well as in stores, I spend at least a little time on those as well.

By accordion — On Dec 19, 2011

@Mykol- I think that Boxing Day is even becoming that way in the United States; people use it as a day off that can double for running errands, taking advantage of sales, making returns, and so on. It makes a lot of sense to me personally, even more than Black Friday.

Boxing day specials mean you can focus on buying what you want/need without feeling selfish, and think about whatever you didn't get for Christmas. Plus I at least have a few friends and relatives with birthdays in late December and early January who are easily skipped over sales after Christmas means I always remember to shop for them!

By andee — On Dec 18, 2011

Well, I am really showing my ignorance here, but I thought Boxing Day had something to do with the sport of boxing.

I really had no idea that it referred to so many different things, and none of them have anything to do with the sport.

Am I the only person who thought this?

If the Boxing Day shopping in other parts of the world is anything like Black Friday shopping, I can see where there might be a few boxing matches among customers.

It seems like every year the number of events you hear that become physical are becoming more and more frequent.

I liked the explanation of Boxing Day possibly being an early form of "regifting". I was doing that long before there was ever an actual word for it, and people were talking about it on the news and in magazines.

I just saw it as good common sense. If you received something you didn't care for, but you knew someone who would really like it, what harm is there in someone getting some good use out of the gift?

By Mykol — On Dec 18, 2011

My son-in-law is from Europe, and he says Boxing Day is very similar to Black Friday in the United States.

It has become a big shopping day with many great Boxing Day deals from a lot of the merchants. They look forward to this day to get some great deals just like we look forward to shopping the day after Thanksgiving.

It doesn't seem to be very clear what the real intention of the day is, so retailers have been able to take advantage of this and create another big shopping day.

If it is anything like some of the deals you can get on Black Friday, it is a great day indeed!

By LisaLou — On Dec 17, 2011

I am someone who likes organization and everything in its place. That is why the first possible explanation of Boxing Day sounded like a good idea to me.

It seems like my house gets so cluttered and messy during the holidays. After everyone opens their gifts, things are really in a mess.

I know I just feel so much better when everything is cleaned up and all the extra boxes and clutter are out of the house.

This can drive my family crazy. As much as I try to just relax and not let it bother me, I want to get it cleaned up right away and get my house back to normal.

I think have a special day just to concentrate on this would be a wonderful idea. At least I wouldn't feel like I was the only person who was eager to get that done.

By truman12 — On Dec 17, 2011

I'm surprised that the origins of Boxing Day are so speculative. It seems like English history is pretty well documented and a lot of primary source document survive. You would think that buried in there somewhere there must be an explanation of where the holiday came from.

By gravois — On Dec 16, 2011

I've been in England on Boxing Day. It gets celebrated in a number of different ways, but honestly, for most people its just another excuse to go down to the pub and have a few too many pints.

Like a lot of holidays, whatever meaning they once had had been lost or obscured in favor of another excuse to party. I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with this, I've been known to have a raucous time on St. Patrick's Day and there is not an Irish bone in my body. But I like the original intent of the holiday as this article explains it. Maybe it would be more meaningful if it was about more than just beer.

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