Boxing Day means different things to different people – for some, it’s simply a day to sleep off the effects of overzealous festive feasting, for others an opportunity to bag a high street bargain or head to the football.
The bank holiday of 26 December is a fixture of the Christmas calendar, but you might not know how it got its name.
There are conflicting theories as to how Boxing Day got its name, and while a few are categorically untrue there’s isn’t one definitive answer to its origins – here’s what you need to know.
What we can say with certainty is that it’s nothing to do with the sport of boxing, putting unwanted Christmas gifts in boxes or, indeed, simply an excuse for football fixtures and shopping sales.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “Boxing Day” dates from the mid-18th century, and refers to the practice of giving tradesmen like postmen and servants “Christmas boxes” following Christmas Day.
These boxes, which are referred to by Samuel Pepys in a diary entry for 19 December 1663, contained gifts offered in gratitude for their services throughout the year.
This practice is thought to have dated back at least as far as the Middle Ages, perhaps originating with churches arranging alms collection boxes for those in need to be opened on St Stephen’s Day.
The Feast of St Stephen – as referenced in the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas, about a benevolent monarch gifting alms to the poor – falls on 26 December in Western Christianity and a day later in the Eastern Christian calendar.
There is also a theory that hard-working domestic staff were given the day off after serving their employers a Christmas dinner, and were sent home with gifts, bonuses and sometimes leftovers from the festive feast.
Boxing Day has been a national bank holiday in the UK since 1871 (1974 in Scotland), with the day off falling the following Monday if 26 December is on a Saturday, and the the following Tuesday if it’s a Sunday.
Traditionally it’s one of the standout occasions in the hunting calendar, with most major hunts holding well-attended meets across Britain.
It’s a huge day for sport, too, with the King George VI Chase second only to the Gold Cup in prestige in the UK chase calendar, and Boxing Day football representing one of the centre-pieces of the season.
Some of the traditions around Boxing Day are slightly more unorthodox, such as the Boxing Day dip, when hardy swimmers (often in fancy dress) brave the icy waters of the North Sea to raise money for charity.
And despite the rise of online shopping and the emergence of Black Friday in Britain, the Boxing Day sales remain a significant shopping event, even if the internet has eased the once-legendary queues.
Indeed, December 26 2017 was the UK’s biggest shopping day ever, with 23 million people hitting the high street and a total of £4.5 billion spent.
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