Here’s the Deal With Boxing Day, a Mysterious but Very Real Holiday
This holiday season, like every other, we’ll all participate in the unspoken public charade that we know what’s going on with the day after Christmas. Not the Kwanzaa part, or the part about it being my birthday (thank you!), but the part about it being Boxing Day.
You probably have some vague notion of what Boxing Day is, but if you had to actually describe it? Crickets. This is fine; you’re not alone. You’ll see it on calendars sometimes, but it’s kind of like Arbor Day, in that it’s not a federal holiday and nothing seems to happen. But outside of America, Boxing Day is actually a bona fide public holiday, celebrated most heartily by the UK and British Commonwealth nations. Let’s explore.
The mysterious origins of Boxing Day have something to do with charity
There’s not one agreed-upon origin story for Boxing Day -- the deeper you dig, the greater the confusion. What we know for sure is that the holiday originated in Britain, back in medieval times.
Common theories all involve some variation on the theme of giving to those less fortunate. Some believe the term “Boxing Day” comes from the practice of the rich donating a wooden box of Christmas leftovers to their servants and apprentices -- who would work Christmas Day, but have December 26 off to celebrate with their families. It could also refer to collection boxes set up at churches, their contents distributed to the poor on December 26 -- the day of the Feast of St. Stephen, a Christian martyr known for acts of charity.
OK that’s nice but is there boxing? As in, the sport?
Having been born on Boxing Day, I’ve fielded more Boxing Day-related questions than the average American. The first thing people in the States say, in my experience, is that they know Boxing Day has something to do with boxing -- the act of putting stuff in boxes, and not boxing, the sport -- but even that’s not really true.
Jack Johnson became the first black world heavyweight champion on Boxing Day, 1908. Half a dozen African Commonwealth nations schedule fights on December 26 to mark the occasion. And watching sporting events is one of the holiday’s most notable traditions around the world -- Boxing Day is known for soccer (UK), ice hockey (Canada), cricket (Australia and New Zealand), horse racing (Australia, New Zealand, and the UK), yacht racing (Australia), and fox hunting (UK).
Nowadays, Boxing Day is basically Black Friday
In the more developed countries that celebrate Boxing Day, it’s primarily associated with shopping. For the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, Boxing Day is to Christmas what Black Friday is to Thanksgiving here in the States. But it’s not just about pushing your fellow citizens out of the way as you grab discounted electronics that you don’t really need but will damn well get anyway. For many people, it’s a post-Christmas chance to stay home and actually relax, play with their new toys, and watch a movie, maybe. Or just stuff themselves with leftovers.
Some places have giant parades and street parties
In Caribbean regions that were once under British rule, the charity box exchange on December 26 wasn’t between aristocrats and employees -- it was between slave-owners and their slaves. Boxing Day was likely the only day off from forced labor that slaves received all year. Among their descendants, December 26 has become a dance party, a day of artistic expression, and a celebration of Afro-Caribbean culture.
Boxing Day in Bermuda belongs to the Gombey dance troupes. Gombey, the Bantu word for “rhythm,” is a traditional dance performance dating back to the first African slaves the British brought to the Caribbean. Boxing Day, along with maybe New Year’s Day, was the only day the Gombey dance was allowed to be performed. The masquerade element of street dances and parades like this also dates back to this era -- it granted dancers a degree of anonymity. These days the Gombey troupes dance on other holidays and at special events too, but Boxing Day is the Big One.
In the Bahamas, Boxing Day was the day slave owners gave their slaves wooden boxes filled with leftovers from the day before. And it was one of the few, if not the only, days of rest. Today, that tradition has grown into an annual celebration of black Caribbean Garifuna culture: the wild and colorful street carnival, Junkanoo. The festivities kick off on Boxing Day and continue into the new year.
Over in Belize, you get the same masquerade-filled rhythmic Garifuna dance party, but here it’s called Jonkonnu. The spelling may vary, but the origins are the same: slaves filling a rare day of leisure with music and dance. Jamaica (where the same style of festival is known as John Canoe; again, there are lots of spellings) has cultivated its own marquee tradition: pantomime. This kind of musical comedy comes from the Brits, but it’s Jamaicans who elevated it. The National Pantomime Season commences on Boxing Day each year.
In Turks and Caicos, the masquerade tradition became what’s today known as just “Masses.” Here, the Maskanoo festival is celebrated with elaborate costumes, street dancing, and live music all across the islands. It remains joyously uncommercialized, for now. The Boxing Day street parade in Trinidad & Tobago is J’ouvert, which in this case is the opening party of the larger celebration of Carnival.
So there you have it. You might find that, in your own way, you’ve been celebrating Boxing Day all along -- by overspending on post-holiday sales, perhaps, or via informal boxing matches with offensive members of your distant family. While you're at it, why not box up those leftovers for someone who really needs them.