The Traditions and the Meaning of Boxing Day

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In Australia, and many other Commonwealth countries including United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, the day after Christmas Day is known as Boxing Day. Its strange name has nothing to do with fighting over the last slice of Christmas pavlova (check out these amazing pavlova boards!) or swapping Christmas mittens for boxing gloves, so why is it called Boxing Day? Discover the meanings and traditions behind this oddly named holiday.

What has Good King Wenceslas to do with Boxing Day?

Boxing Day is celebrated on December 26.

Until the 19th century, December 26 was more famously known throughout the Christian world as St Stephen’s Day, or the Feast of Stephen. If you love Christmas carols, you might recognise the Feast of Stephen as the time Good King Wenceslas trudged through the snow to the aid of a peasant, his weary page stepping in his footsteps!

Good King Wenceslas was a 10th century Bohemian Duke, and both he and St Stephen were renowned for their good deeds and charitable acts towards the poor and disadvantaged. Wenceslas was canonised after his death and given his own saints day, celebrated on 28 September, the anniversary of his death (December 26 was already taken!).

Amongst followers of St Stephen and those he inspired, December 26 was gaining something of a reputation as a day of charity – and that has everything to do with how it became known as Boxing Day!

Why is it called Boxing Day?

Boxing Day got its name in Victorian England sometime around 1830, and it’s most likely derived from an act of giving.

With no social security to claim, poor and disadvantaged people relied on ‘alms’ – gifts of money or food – to survive. The collection box, or alms box, was passed around the packed churches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, taking advantage of the generous seasonal sentiment of the congregation. This box would be opened on December 26 and the donated contents distributed amongst those in need – a sort of “unboxing” day, if you will! This is one possible origin of the term Boxing Day, but there is another to consider.

Servants and tradesmen traditionally worked on Christmas Day taking care of the needs of their wealthy employers. The following day – St Stephen’s Day – they were rewarded with a gift of gratitude and a day off to visit family.

Sack-covered wooden gift box filled with small gifts

Christmas boxes were given to employees and farm tenants to be taken home and shared with their families. These boxes could contain anything from hand-me-down clothes to ribbons, linens and books, and maybe even a generous share of leftovers from the previous day’s feast. This boxing up of gifts was so eagerly anticipated that it may have been the reason December 26 became affectionately known in Victorian England as Boxing Day.

In Australia, some families have continued the tradition of Christmas boxes by giving excited children a Christmas Eve box, containing maybe a book, toy or game, and a new pair of Christmas pyjamas to be photo-ready when the wrapper-ripping begins in earnest on Christmas morning. Check out these fabulous Christmas Eve Box ideas to start your own “boxing” tradition!

Is Boxing Day a public holiday?

The tradition of giving servants and employees a day off on December 26 became so entrenched that Boxing Day was officially declared a public holiday in 1871. The Boxing Day public holiday always falls on December 26, but if that happens to be on a weekend, the following Monday (or Tuesday if Christmas Day is on Saturday!) will also be a public holiday! You can keep track of whether there will be a bonus Boxing Day public holiday this year at Australia.gov.au.

Boxing Day traditions in Australia

You could spend Boxing Day picking at leftover food and snoozing off yesterday’s over-indulgence, or it might be Christmas Day 2.0 with further feasting and family gatherings, but Boxing Day in Australia is known for a few traditions in particular:

Boxing Day sales

Stores and shopping centres go crazy with Boxing Day sales Australia wide! Retailers open early and vie for your leftover Christmas dollars, offering big discounts in store and online. It’s a great time to buy big ticket items or stock up on Christmas decorations and mince pies at clearance prices! Find tips for making the most of the Boxing Day sales.

If you don’t fancy the battle for a parking space, you can do all your Boxing Day sales shopping online, then sit back for an afternoon of cricket with the Boxing Day Test.

Boxing Day Test Cricket

In 1980 the Melbourne Cricket Club secured the rights to begin a test match annually on Boxing Day, to be played between the Australian cricket team and a touring international team. Since then, the sound of leather on willow has emanated from television sets broadcasting Boxing Day cricket across the country.

Boxing Day Test tickets are the perfect Christmas gift for cricket fans!

Boxing Day movies

A lot of hotly anticipated new films make their debut across Australian cinemas on Boxing Day, with some blockbusters screening as early as 12:01am! With so many people enjoying the Boxing Day public holiday, film producers have an open playing field to see who can score the coveted title of highest-grossing new release!

Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race

Boxing Day Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race setting off

In a land ‘girt by sea’, the sight of billowing sails skimming over the waves of Sydney Harbour is a procession to behold. The Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race sees a flotilla of yachts set sail every Boxing Day (cancelled in 2020 for the first time in 75 years due to the pandemic) to make the arduous journey to Hobart, Tasmania. If you are in Sydney, it’s well worth taking along a picnic to one of the many vantage points to watch.

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