UP & DOWN THE RIVER: A Unique Tradition: Boxing Day

By Cathy Johnson

While we have much in common with Canada, our neighbor to the north, one thing they have that we don’t is the holiday called Boxing Day. The history and description of this British tradition is interesting, to say the least, but also not totally verifiable. So after a bit of internet research, consider this your introduction to Boxing Day.

This holiday is observed on December 26 and only in a few countries, mostly those affiliated with the UK (Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand) but many other European countries (Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries) observe a sort of second Christmas Day on the 26th.

The story of the origin of the holiday depends on the source. It may have started when churches opened their alms boxes on the day after Christmas and distributed the contents to the poor. These alms boxes were somehow tied to the feast of St, Stephen, which the Roman Catholic Church observes on the day after Christmas.

It should be noted that the familiar Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslaus” has him going out “on the feast of Stephen” to give alms to a peasant, perhaps a reflection of that tradition.

In England it was traditional that servants got the day after Christmas off to celebrate with their families, and their employers would often fill up a box with goodies to enhance the celebration. The boxes could contain gifts, bonuses, and sometimes, leftover food. The Oxford English Dictionary notes Boxing Day  to be “the first week-day after Christmas-day, observed as a holiday on which post-men, errand-boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas-box” as thanks for good service throughout the year.

Of course, modern times have changed the observance of Boxing Day. In the UK it is now a bank holiday or public holiday, meaning many people do not have to work, but “many“ is not “all.” Boxing Day has become an important shopping holiday, much like our Black Friday. Retailers open early, have hugely discounted items, and actually count on the revenue from this late-in-the-year event to enhance their bottom line. Some retailers have even extended the event into Boxing Week.

Sports are also now tied to Boxing Day.  In the UK the football (soccer) and rugby leagues schedule a full program of matches on Boxing Day. In some African Commonwealth nations prize-fighting contests are held on Boxing Day, thus making it an actual “boxing” day.  Cricket matches, yacht races and horse races also are scheduled on Boxing Day.

In the US, the 26th might be a kind of “boxing day” for some families who need to “box up” gifts to be returned or exchanged or packed up in the car for the ride back home.

So whatever you find yourself doing on December 26th or wherever you are, now you know a little bit more about what other folks around the world are celebrating on Boxing Day.

Up and Down the River is sponsored by Artworks, a project partially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities through Michigan Humanities Council. 

The Artworks office is located at 106 N. Michigan Ave., in Big Rapids. President is Alice Bandstra; Jennifer Locke, executive director; Pat Heeter, gallery team leader; and Cathy Johnson, editor.

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