For Anglophiles outside the UK who are unfamiliar with Boxing Day, a quick primer is in order. Boxing Day, December 26, the day after Christmas, is now a bank holiday (i.e., “public” holiday) in Britain, but its roots go back to at least to the 17th century. One of the first known references to Boxing Day was found in a Samuel Pepys’ journal entry, penned in the late 1600s, where Pepys mentions giving "Christmas boxes" to servants. (Pepys was a member of Parliament and famed diarist.) At that time, the “haves” distributed boxes of coins, food, and used clothing to the “have nots,” which included the poor and servants.
By the mid-19th century, Queen Victoria officially declared the day after Christmas a holiday. In those Victorian times, Boxing Day was observed more as a servants’ holiday. Domestics, after having spent Christmas Day catering to their masters, got leave the following day to visit their families (if the family lived nearby, that is). Typically, families gave servants a box containing money, food, and gifts to take home. With the servants gone, the wealthy contented themselves with Christmas-dinner leftovers. Sometimes the “upstairs” families arranged special treats or a party on Boxing Day for the servants—or even a servant’s ball. Landowners commonly sent game to their tenants and provided treats at the parish church. Meanwhile, city dwellers tipped the poor blokes who kept the city running smoothly: lamplighters, delivery boys, postmen, and various tradesmen.
And what has Boxing Day morphed into in modern times? A day of rest, of course, but a few activities are particularly popular. Historically, in modern times, the hoards shop on Boxing Day—with stores offering huge discounts. Indeed, the day is Britain’s premier shopping day, equivalent to the day after Thanksgiving in the US. Nowadays one even hears of “Boxing Week” in the retail sector.
Sports are also a big Boxing Day draw. The Premier League, Scottish Premier League, Irish Premier League, and rugby leagues engage in football (soccer) and rugby matches. The prestigious King George VI Chase (horse race) is run on Boxing Day. Also popular, traditionally, has been mounted fox hunting. The Hunting Act of 2004 put the kibosh on such fox hunting, though I’m not sure how effective the prohibition has been. Politically correct hunters nowadays engage in drag hunting instead of tracking down live fox. (A scent of aniseed oils and animal urine, applied to a rag, is dragged along the ground for a set distance, which includes a finish line. Hunters and foxhounds follow the scent rather than live foxes.) And finally, for Britons with a healthy bent, taking a long hike (rambling) is often a Boxing Day tradition.
And now, dear Anglophiles, you're in the know about Boxing Day!