In the United States, the day after Christmas is simply the day after Christmas. In the UK, however, it is Boxing Day: a holiday in its own right.
Boxing Day is December 26. Traditionally this is when all the haves distributed gifts and money to the have-nots—the poor or people who provided services throughout the year.
Street sweepers, waiters, lamplighters, milkmen, newsboys—you name it. Think of it as a Victorian orgy of tipping—though it actually goes back much further than Victoria’s reign. A 16th-century abbess, for instance, wrote about giving money to her kitchen clerk, servants, the gardener, and the “Baily of the Husbandry,” whatever that was.
Not everyone was crazy about the Boxing Day tipping frenzy. Jonathan Swift—who wrote Gulliver’s Travels—was quite put out when the Boxing Day tips to his coffeehouse attendants doubled. He had to pay, or else he’d look like a cheapskate in front of his friends. That was nearly 200 years ago—something to think about next time you drop some change at Starbucks.
Why Call It Boxing Day?
There are innumerable theories about where the name Boxing Day comes from, but no evidence to back up any of them.
Here’s a list of the most commonly encountered origin stories— feel free to insert maybe at the beginning of every sentence:
- Churches have locked boxes with slots in them to collect money for the poor. Called alms boxes, they may have been opened on December 26 and the contents distributed to the needy on that day.
- Church alms boxes may date back to imperial Rome. The Romans had a holiday called Paganalia to celebrate the crops sown in winter. The holiday came to England with the Roman conquerors. As part of the festivities, towns set up altars, and everyone piled coins for the poor on them.
- Apprentices carried earthenware boxes around to collect pay owed to their masters. They used the same type of box at Christmas to ask for tips for their good service.
- In 1703, one John Dunton speculated that the term Boxing Day came from the days when ships carried locked boxes holding offerings to the ship’s patron saint. Before the ship sailed, everyone contributed a few pence, and no one could touch the box until the ship returned home safely.
The Weird Stuff
As with Christmas, some odd customs developed around the day. Horses were exercised and then bled on December 26, to keep them healthy throughout the year. Until the sport was banned in England in 2005, fox hunting meets took place on Boxing Day. These traditions may be connected to the fact that December 26 is also the feast day of Saint Stephen, who is the patron saint of horses—though no one knows why. (Stephen was the first Christian martyr back in the 1st century and had nothing whatsoever to do with horses.)
- Boxing Day was traditionally a big night for theaters, since all the workers had some extra cash in their pockets.
- Pantomimes were introduced that night, and to this day mummers’ performances occur all over England on Boxing Day weekend.
- In some counties, a Saint Stephen’s breakfast of beef and beer is put out for all takers. In Ireland, roving boys will carry around a dead wren, asking for money to bury it.
Why hasn’t the rest of the world adopted this charming holiday? After all, pouring out money for gifts and tips on the day after Christmas, bleeding horses, watching mimes, and carrying dead birds around sounds pretty appealing. The rest of us just don’t know what we’re missing!
Originally published in Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Christmas Collection.