Why Does the U.K. Celebrate Boxing Day — and What Is It?

Each year, millions of people in the United States and around the world gather to celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on December 24 and 25. For most of us, the holiday stops there. However, in the United Kingdom and Ireland, the holiday continues into December 26 (or the first weekday after Christmas), which is known as Boxing Day. It’s not celebrated in the U.S., so most people over here are unaware of it; what is Boxing Day?

Duchess Kate Middleton, Prince William, Duchess Meghan Markle, Prince Harry celebrating Christmas.

The Royal Family celebrates Boxing Day each year. | Adrian Dennis/Getty Images

It has nothing to do with the sport of boxing — but hunting is popular

Before you jump to the conclusion that the holiday must have something to do with boxing, it doesn’t. In fact, it’s named after an actual box (the type of box, as you’ll read below, isn’t entirely known). The sport of boxing is unheard of on the holiday; instead, most people choose to hunt. The most commonly hunted animal was the fox, but England and Wales banned the act of hunting foxes back in 2005. Scotland had banned it two years earlier, but it’s still legal in Northern Ireland. Some hunt pheasants; the royal family actually has an annual pheasant shooting on Boxing Day. The family made headlines this year when the palace announced Prince Harry would not be participating. There were rumors that Meghan Markle was the reason he opted out, but the palace hasn’t confirmed anything.

Boxing Day takes place the first weekday after Christmas

Traditionally, the holiday is celebrated the first weekday after Christmas. However, it is most commonly celebrated on December 26, regardless of whether the day falls on a weekday. Years ago, it was always a day off for servants, mail carriers, and others who did some kind of service, which is why it usually took place on a week day. If the holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday, it will typically be observed the following Monday, since that would be the first weekday after Christmas.

There are three suspected origins of Boxing Day

The actual origin of Boxing Day has been debated by many in the U.K. for years. But there are three suspected origins. First, the term “Christmas box” is how presents are referred over in the U.K. According to The Spruce, Boxing Day supposedly came from the idea that servants would take the day off after Christmas and receive a Christmas Box from their master. Today, it’s celebrated as a bank holiday.

A second meaning for the holiday comes from the idea of placing a charity box in churches on Christmas Day. People drop money into the box as they attend Christmas mass. The following day, Boxing Day, is when the box is opened, and the money gets donated to charity.

Finally, there could be a nautical tradition surrounding the holiday’s name, too. The Spruce reported that ships once brought a box sealed with money on board as good luck. If the ship arrived at its destination, the box would then be passed along to a priest in the new destination. The priest would save the box, then open it on Christmas and give its contents to the less fortunate.

While the true origin of Boxing Day remains up for debate, it has become a widely celebrated holiday in the U.K. and other British Commonwealths, as well as Ireland.

Check out The Cheat Sheet on Facebook!