You can never satisfactorily explain Boxing Day to an American. The day sounds comical to them; just another ridiculous Commonwealth quainitism, like fortnights and elevenses.
The true origin’s of the holiday’s curious sounding name are decidedly murky. Over the years various origins have been asserted, the most popular being that this was the day the lord of the manor gifted boxes of money to servants on his estate. If you are interested these origins are detailed in this article from Snopes.
There is nothing, in particular, you need to do on Boxing Day. No unusual traditions to be observed. Stores (similar to the American Black Friday) open early for the sales, and sport also seems to be a familiar theme in Boxing Day throughout the world. In the UK a full fixture list is played by the football league, in Australia the boxing day Test is a modern cricketing tradition, and in Canada they watch hockey (although they seem to do that the other 364 days of the year, too).
There may, however, be some local eccentricities. In my hometown, there is such a thing as the Boxing Day dip. A frankly ludicrous tradition, it involves some peculiar people (possibly with deep-seeded psychological issues) in fancy dress who run into the freezing north sea for the aforementioned “dip”. It’s not something that ever appealed to me, hypothermia never has, but it was always fun — of a sort — watching those foolhardy enough to try it.
One of the joys of Christmas is the build-up, the sense of anticipation, and yet it is over so soon. Boxing Day plays the important role of stretching out the holiday. Give the day a name, you make it something different, you set it apart from the ordinary, even if the name you give it is a silly one. Boxing Day acts as the downer, the Christmas Xanax, for the previous day’s frenetic, festive high. It’s a day for the post-bacchanalian slumber, of leftover turkey transformed into a curry or made into sandwiches, of bad Christmas TV, of lingering on the end of the holiday, of easing back into the mundane.
I am reminded of W.H. Auden‘s Christmas poem, For The Time Being (Auden, btw, was born in England but later took out American citizenship):
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
STAY TUNED for an installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby.
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Images by Awindram
Just to add one more thought to your thoughts — I was reading American journalist Claire Suddath’s attempt to explain Boxing Day to Americans (just now posted in Time), which starts out like this:
Don’t you think that’s a little strange — that nobody remembers why…especially for a country that is so proud of its history? And the origins of the day weren’t so long ago, if I’m not mistaken…
Rushing out so a very quick response. I don’t think differing accounts or folk etymologies for these sort of things are that unusual, just more consideration perhaps given to Boxing Day as it’s a strange name for a holiday. For Boxing Day the examples cited usually follow, for the most part, a similar pattern.
Our family lived in Hong Kong, far from any extended family. So, while Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were celebrated with just the 8 of us, my parents always had a Boxing Day open house for friends of my parents. My mom set out a big buffet and it was always a fun day. Later when we returned back to the US, my parents continued the tradition of a Boxing Day party – extended family in the early part of the day and then other HK families would come over for dinner, food and lots of fun. My parents only stopped the Boxing Day party tradition 2 years ago …too much work and they are getting older. We still have Christmas crackers every year….something we stared 35 years ago in HK.
Your parents are an inspiration! I’ve always wanted to start up a Boxing Day tradition since repatriating to the US, but didn’t have the energy… Also, many people, including myself, have to work on Dec 26 in this country! This year I remarked to my office colleagues who made it into work on the 26th that we wouldn’t have to do this had our country not separated from Mother England! Having the 26th off as well does seem more civilized…