The presents have long since been unwrapped, the carols sung, and the good tidings all wished. Now it’s Boxing Day. Hooray and—what the heck is Boxing Day? Is everyone supposed to go and get in fistfights out in the snow? Is that when all the Christmas decorations get all boxed up and ye merry citizens sit around and twiddle their thumbs until New Year’s Eve? Isn’t there something where you have to dig out your riding gear (if perchance you have riding gear), saddle up your trusty steed (same deal) and chase a poor, forlorn fox? What is Boxing Day all about, where is it from, and how do people (without horses) celebrate it?
There are varying accounts of the origins of Boxing Day, which is primarily celebrated in the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. (This day after Christmas holiday was renamed “Day of Goodwill” in South Africa in 1994 in an attempt to sever ties with its colonial past.) One interpretation is that the name comes from Victorian times—or possibly the Middle Ages or Ancient Rome—when charitable organizations would go around collecting the proceeds of their alms boxes, hopefully filled to the brim by churchgoers who sought to spread some good cheer. Another theory states that the name comes from the tradition of servants receiving a box of food and gifts from their masters—along with a day off of work, so they could share it with their family. Still another maintains that it stems from the practice of giving boxes of presents to tradespeople in recognition of their hard work throughout the year.
And great news! Boxing Day can indeed be celebrated by the horseless. It’s just got that association because December 26 is also St. Stephen’s Day. He is the patron saint of horses, so there are often horse races run and televised throughout the day across the UK. Fox hunting was also a standard part of Boxing Day for a particular segment of the population, but a severe modification of laws around hunting with dogs made it a nearly-banned (though still existent) activity in Scotland in 2002, followed by England and Wales in 2004.
In lieu of that, many Boxing Day revelers will instead take the bank holiday as a time to catch up with friends and family—often over a lavish breakfast of Christmas dinner leftovers—or take advantage of the post-Christmas sales, akin to Black Friday in America. If a punch or two gets thrown in the frenzy over an especially great deal on minor electronics, hey—'tis the season.