The photographs were plastered across the British tabloids on the 27th of December last year: “Drunken Revellers Overdo Their Post Christmas Celebrations,” screamed one. “Festive Boozing Madness!” yelled another—both accompanied by images of heavy drinking, vomiting and brawling in Britain’s city centers. These, believe it or not, were standard scenes from one of Britain’s most beloved public holidays: Boxing Day.
Let’s get something straight from the outset: no right-minded Brits will be throwing any punches this Boxing Day (which, as always, falls on December 26th). It’s not supposed to be a day dedicated to roughhousing and street brawling. Nor, as many Americans believe, is it an occasion for gathering around a TV and watching a world title bout. Nope, a traditional Boxing Day has absolutely nothing to do with fighting.
In the United States, the day after Christmas has next to no significance compared to the day before Christmas. But in the UK it’s the opposite: Boxing Day is a permanent public holiday with its own specific practices and traditions. Christmas Eve, for all its anticipation and promise, is just another working day.
So what does happen on Boxing Day in Britain? Traditionally, it’s a day for seeing the “other” set of parents or grandparents; for spending time with uncles, aunts and cousins; for playing board games and drinking mulled wine; for telling old family jokes and watching older James Bond movies. For my parents, it’s always been about gathering every branch of the family tree together like mad arborists, then remembering that blood might be thicker than water, but it sometimes needs to be diluted with wine to make it flow properly.
Boxing Day is also, for some families, a day for the biggest Christmas dinner of the lot. Also known as the Feast of St. Stephen (an ancient festival dedicated to Christianity’s first martyr), it has its own specific, time-honored food code. Of course, leftover turkey is highly likely to make an appearance (in sandwiches, stews or even curries), but some families will start a full meal again from scratch, centering on turkey-alternatives like baked ham or roasted goose.
Christmas cake (overshadowed the day before by Christmas pudding) is mandatory, while both types of crackers—those served with cheese and pickle and those containing bad jokes and paper hats—will also make an appearance.
Question any Brit and they’ll undoubtedly think it odd that America—a country with such deep British ties—doesn’t recognize Boxing Day at all (or crackers for that matter). But as soon as you start discussing its origins, you might notice a few frowns. Because “Boxing Day” is a public holiday rooted in servitude.
The moniker itself derives from Christmas boxes—gifts traditionally given to servants on the day after Christmas, Downton Abbey-style. Having served their masters diligently the day before (and throughout the preceding year), those “downstairs” were handed these boxes, containing small presents and leftover food to take home to their own families on December 26th.
Although there are other theories as to the origins of Boxing Day—most involving donation boxes being broken open and shared among the poor on the day after Christmas—the Oxford English Dictionary agrees with the Downton explanation. Officially, it defines Boxing Day as: “A public holiday celebrated on the first day after Christmas Day—from the custom of giving tradespeople a Christmas box on this day.”
Modern Boxing Day, of course, has nothing to do with servitude and serfdom. Indeed, after family time, it’s a day dedicated to sports. Soccer, naturally, is top of this particular tree, with a full program of Premier League fixtures every year. Horse racing is a major draw too, particularly from the famous tracks at Huntingdon, Wincanton and Kempton. Meanwhile, fox hunting—once a Boxing Day staple across the UK—was banned in 2005 (although drag hunting keeps many of its more humane traditions alive).
The UK isn’t the only nation to celebrate Boxing Day. Plenty of others do too, and not just former and current British colonies. While Canada, Australia and New Zealand are predictable enthusiasts, others embrace the eminence of December 26th as well—most prominently the Germans and the Dutch. The Bulgarians, conversely, treat it as their Father’s Day (St. Joseph’s Day, when they celebrate fatherhood, falls on December 26th in the Bulgarian Orthodox Calendar). The Poles, meanwhile, eschew any fuss and simply call it “Second Christmas Day.”
Perhaps the strangest thing about Boxing Day is the fact that it’s survived this long. The first recorded mention is from the 1660s, in The Diary of Samuel Pepys (who also described the time as a season of “unending sociability”), while other Christmas traditions have waned and withered over the last generation—from Christmas wreaths and Advent candles, to posting wish lists up (real) chimneys, so Santa can read them in smoke.
Boxing Day, meanwhile, has slugged it out and maintained its relevance—in part because it’s perfect for modern, convoluted families, as it allows Christmas to be shared over two days. But also because, like its close American counterpart Black Friday, it’s become a major shopping event.
Whichever day of the week it falls on, Boxing Day is when the UK’s biggest sales of the year begin, both online and in stores. It’s considered a great opportunity to buy what you actually wanted for Christmas.
So there you have it. Boxing Day—a very British occasion with suspect origins that’s evolved into a very 21st Century celebration of elaborate families, unhealthy eating and online shopping. Yes, many will happily accept the extra day off and spend it drinking at the pub instead, to tabloid photographers’ glee. But from an outsider’s perspective, it’s hard to argue with the basic principles of Boxing Day: more gifts, more rich food and no need to go to work. Some antiquated holidays, it seems, are well worth preserving. In that sense at least, the Brits are the ultimate fighters.
Jonathan Thompson is an award-winning British travel writer based between Dallas and London. Previously a Senior Editor at Men’s Health magazine, he has chronicled his journeys through 50 states and more than 100 countries in myriad magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, from Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveller, to Esquire and National Geographic Traveller. Follow his travels on social media: @JT_Travels.