Boxing Day Adds A Bit Extra to Christmas - But What's It All About?

An Extra Day of Celebration in the Festive Season

Boxing Day Shoppers Hit The Sales
Boxing Day shoppers pack Selfridges Sale in London. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Boxing Day turns Christmas into an extra long holiday. But what is it? What are its special traditions and how did it get its name?

One of the nicer Christmas customs in the UK is that little bit of extra celebration called Boxing Day. It's the day after Christmas but it's also a UK National Holiday. So if December 26 falls on a weekend, the following Monday becomes a holiday.

During particularly lucky years (like 2016) when Christmas Day is a Sunday the following Monday is the legal Christmas holiday and Boxing Day is celebrated on Tuesday. Voilà, an instant four-day weekend is created.

What Does Boxing Day Celebrate?

That's a good question. Too bad nobody really knows the answer. There are of course, loads of theories. Here are just a few of the suggested origins of Boxing Day:

  • A day for the servants - It may have been a day when the household gave a Christmas box to people who had worked for them during the year. Or, it may have been the day when the servants, who had to work on Christmas Day, visited their families, carrying boxes of presents and leftover Christmas food, leaving the servantless household to eat box lunches.
  • A day for charity - Some say that traditionally, churches opened their alms boxes the day after Christmas and distributed money to the poor on Boxing Day. There's probably a lot of truth to this theory as December 26 is St Stephen's Day (or the Feast of Stephen mentioned in the song Good King Wenceslas) and the saint is customarily associated with charity and giving alms. 
  • A day to reward good service - Traditionally, tradespeople - the greengrocer, the tailor, the milkman - would be given a box of presents and money to reward good service on the first weekday after Christmas.
  • A feudal obligation Some suggest that in the middle ages, the lord of the manor distributed boxes of household goods and tools to his serfs, as was his obligation, on Boxing Day.

The Boxing Day tradition goes back at least hundreds of years. Samuel Pepys, in his diary, mentions it in the mid 17th century. However far back it goes, Queen Victoria only made Boxing Day a legal holiday in England and Wales in the mid 19th century. In Scotland, Boxing Day was not a national holiday until the late 20th century.

How do People Celebrate?

Unlike other UK Christmas season festivities, Boxing Day is completely secular.  People spend the day visiting friends and family, going to concerts or the panto, engaging in outdoor activities and in shopping - offices may be closed but the shops and malls are busy. In fact Boxing Day is one of the busiest shopping days on the British retail calendar.

Traditionally, people visit friends and more distant relations to exchange small gifts, sample a slice of traditional Christmas cake or have a light meal of holiday leftovers.

The day is also given over to spectator and participation sports. Contrary to what some people say, Boxing Day is not named for boxing matches. But there are loads of football matches, racing meets and all kinds of major public and private sports events on the day.

Racing Meets and Fox Hunts

It may be just a coincidence (though some would say there's no such thing as a coincidence)  but St Stephen (whose feast is celebrated on the same day as Boxing Day, remember) is the patron saint of horses.  Horse racing and point to point horse events are traditional Boxing Day activities.

Until quite recently, so was fox hunting. And although fox hunting with hounds was banned in Scotland in 2002 and in the rest of the the UK in 2004, under the law a kind of fox hunting on horseback is still allowed. The pack of hounds is allowed to flush the fox out into open ground where it can be shot. In another fox hunt replacement a scent for the hounds to chase is dragged over the course. Boxing Day is a traditional time for these events and the spectacle of hunters in their red hunting jackets - called "pinks" - riding to the hounds can still be seen. Most of the time these days they'll probably be followed by a pack of animal rights protesters.

A Day for Eccentricities

Boxing Day also seems to be an occasion for silliness. There are loads of swims and dips in the icy waters around Britain - often in fancy dress (British for costumes) - rubber ducky races, and beagling - a mock fox hunt on foot. A typical Boxing Day line up of events always includes a chance for British eccentrics to let their hair down.

Getting Around on Boxing Day

If you don't have a car or cycle and you're planning to venture further than you can walk on Boxing Day, it's a good idea to plan your journey in advance. Public transportation - trains, buses, underground and metro services around the country - operate on limited, Bank Holiday schedules. Taxis, if you can find them, are usually more expensive.  These information resources may help you to get around on Boxing Day and other UK Bank Holidays: 

  • National Rail Enquiries - Schedules, station, service status and fare information for almost all of the UK's mainline rail services.
  • Transport for London - journey planner, route maps, schedules and service status announcements for London Underground, Overground, tram, buses and mainline services to London stations.
  • UK Buses - an enthusiasts website with links to most of the local bus companies and bus services around the UK.
  • Traveline -  an association of transport companies, local authorities and passenger groups which tries to provide routes and times for all public transportation options in Britain, including bus, rail, coach and ferry.