Sunday, December 25, 2016

Boxing Day is not Black Friday: Unwrapping the Tradition

by Linda Root

Today is Boxing Day

When Americans and most other people outside of the U.K. and the Commonwealth, inquire about the holiday, a common modern explanation links it to the American event known as Black Friday. Doing so invites an unfortunate comparison, although,  in current times, it fits.  The American Black Friday competes with the day after Christmas as the busiest shopping day of the year,  but there are significant differences.  One is steeped in tradition dating back many centuries.  The other is a late Twentieth Century marketing scheme.

Black Friday falls on the day after Thanksgiving when stores offer incentives called 'Door Busters' to attract early shoppers. The term Black Friday is designed to seduce buyers into thinking the stores have been losing money for the first eleven months of the year, and only through excessive shopping will they save  American retail merchants from 'going in the red.'  Many department stores in the U.S. close all or part of Thanksgiving Day but open after midnight to crowds lined up in the parking lot waiting for a chance to snatch up a loss leader.  Some setup camp, like the shopper below.

However, the similarity between Black Friday and Boxing Day ends there. Theoretically, the term Black Friday dates to an event in the late 19th century when a cabal of overreaching entrepreneurs tried to seize the nation's Gold reserves, hence, a black moment in American history.  Rumors that the term relates to the ability of plantation owners to buy slaves at a discount on the day after Thanksgiving, while not far off the mark, fortunately, are not supported by any facts.  While Boxing Day has also become a record breaking shopping marathon, it’s original intent had nothing to do with corporate greed, and its goal was altruistic.

Some sources indicate Boxing Day is a Victorian holiday, which is technically correct if one is counting from the time of its being established as an official holiday.  Banks, public offices, and many private businesses in the U. K. and other Commonwealth Countries remain closed on December 26th, ostensibly to give their employees the day off, allegedly to spend with their families.

But Boxing Day did not begin with Victoria and Albert. The holiday itself dates to the early middle ages and is associated with altruism rather than greed. The official designation of Boxing Day as a national holiday occurred after the American Revolution, which may be why Americans never adopted it.  Left to their own devices, the American's came up with Black Friday, which on occasion has brought riot police to Chicago and New York Department stores.

Boxing Day, Saint Stephan's Day, Christmas II, The Day after Christmas - December 26th.

Samuel Pepys, courtesy Edmund J. Sullivan
There are elements of something like a Boxing Day found in the folklore of the eleventh century. The name itself may come from the ancient practice of priests breaking open the Poor Box on the day after Christmas and distributing the collected alms among the poor people of the parish.  Others say the name stems from a tradition whereby lairds distributed unwanted gifts,  hand-me-downs, and leftovers from the Christmas feast in boxes given to their servants and tenant farmers on the day after Christmas.  One of the first mentions of it in English literature comes in Samuel Pepys’ Diary, published in 1663, in which he discusses depositing  something in what he refers to as the 'boy’s box.'

Until recently,  service providers with regular routes such as letter carriers and deliverers of fruits and vegetables would duplicate their usual rounds on the day after Christmas, retrieving envelopes or boxes containing gifts or tips for their year of service.  That practice has fallen out of favor because it seemed coercive. To be in the proper spirit of Boxing Day, the benevolence of the overlord is to have the illusion of being voluntary, in Victorian terms, 'the done thing.'

Sporting matches and horse races are popular features of Boxing Day.  Some say the inclusion of sports as a part of the ritual dates back to Roman times when games, races and staged combats were a principal source of recreation. Dancing was also popular.

Coincidentally,  the holiday happens to fall on Saint Stephens Day. However, there were two Saint Stephens, the earliest being the first Christian martyr, who was executed by public stoning for his support of Christ.  The second Saint Stephen, a Swede, is the patron saint of Swedish horses.   Perhaps in a meld of the two, the early practice of running horses inside of churches on Saint Stephen’s Day prompted the addition of horse races and other spectator sports to the Boxing Day repertoire.  Football (soccer) matches on Boxing Day are usually played between local rivals. In keeping with the spirit of the season, games are scheduled to spare the participants from having to travel away from their families during the holidays.

 Until the ban on fox-hunting was imposed in the early 21st Century,  hunts on Boxing Day were a major source of revenue in rural counties.  In addition to the money the hunts brought into the community, entry fees and prize monies were donated to local charities.  In spite of the ban, hunts in a version where no foxes are killed remain traditional Boxing Day activities among the super wealthy.

Cotswolds Hunt, courtesy Steven McKay

Countries with historical ties to the United Kingdom often call the 26th of December by different names, the most common of which is Christmas II or The Second Day of Christmas.  There is a movement afoot in Britain to close stores on Boxing Day to give the employees a second day to spend with their families.  It is not expected to pass.

The Irish Version ~Wren Day

Perhaps the most bizarre tradition associated with Boxing Day is Irish.  No surprise there.  It is a variation of the holiday called Wren Day.  According to legend, killing a wren was a sin, unless it was done on Saint Stephens’ Day.  Boys would paint their face, dress in scary costumes, and go about in small gangs, stoning wrens, which they would dip in a sticky substance and suspend from sticks on strings. Thankfully, the Irish celebration has moved beyond that.

Wren Day is still celebrated, but the killing of the wrens is symbolic. Groups of boys still dress up, boisterously parade,  and collect money door-to-door, which they allegedly give to charities.

Wren Boys, parading in Dingle, Kerry, courtesy NLI

Good King Wenceslas and the Feast of Stephan

Perhaps the most familiar of the Boxing Day/Saint Stephan's Day legends is the one popularized in the Victorian Christmas Carol,  Good King Wenceslas, written by John Mason Neale in the latter 19th century and put to music dating from the 16 Century.  Although Wenceslas is an actual historical person,  a martyred 10th century Bohemian king, patron saint of the modern Czech Republic, Neale's lyric verse is more than likely mere conjecture. According to the carol, the king was traveling in a snow storm and came upon a peasant gathering fuel.  Goodly Wenceslas was sympathetic to the poor man's plight and arranged to have a sumptuous feast brought to the man’s house, which the King shared with the peasant and his family. It perfectly fits into the spirit of Boxing Day, combining the virtues of charity and camaraderie and the idea that sharing the wealth is an endeavor worthy of either a king or a saint.  As stated, the lyric probably has no basis in fact and does not reflect the behavior of most 10th Century kings, but its association with the Saint Stephen’s Day and its message make it an appropriate Boxing Day Hymn.

The King and his page, Wikimedia Commons

  'The first stanza links the carol to December 26th, Saint Stephen's Day.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
on the feast of Stephen,
when the snow lay round about,
deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shown the moon that night,
though the frost was cruel,
when a poor man came in sight,
gathering winter fuel. 

 The second reveals the king's concern for the peasant:

Hither, page, and stand by me.
If thou know it telling:
yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?
Sire, he lives a good league hence,
underneath the mountain,
right against the forest fence
by Saint Agnes fountain.

Now, the King decides to intervene....

Bring me flesh, and bring me wine.
Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I will see him dine
when we bear them thither.
Page and monarch, forth they went,
forth they went together
through the rude wind's wild lament
and the bitter weather.

The king admonishes his page that dedication to a worthy task has its own reward.

Sire, the night is darker now,
and the wind blows stronger.

Fails my heart, I know not how -

I can go no longer.

Mark my footsteps good, my page,

tread thou in them boldly:

Thou shalt find the winter's rage
freeze thy blood less coldly.

From a biscuit tin on display at Victoria and Albert Museum

And, after Boxing Day, What next?

Traditionally, yule logs must be removed and holiday decorations put away by Boxing Day, but the winter festival season is not over.  The New Year approaches, and soon the revelries associated with Twelfth Night will have those who aspire to become the Lord of Misrule or the Queen of the Bean picking apart their honey cake, looking for the magic bean.  For those who do not win the prize, there is no cause to despair.  It is only 332 days to Black Friday.


Note: All photographs are via Wikimedia commons, and are in the public domain or licensed via Creative Commons. 

Linda Root is the author of the historical novels The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, the Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, and the four books of the Legacy of the Queen of Scots series,  She lives in Yucca Valley, California, near Pappy & Harriets and the Joshua Tree National Park.  Her books are on Amazon and Amazon Kindle.


  1. Very interesting. I had no idea what Boxing day was and to learn about wren day was equally informative. Great post.

  2. Very interesting. I had no idea what Boxing day was and to learn about wren day was equally informative. Great post.

  3. Growing up in England, my parents were landowners and gave 'boxes' to servants and tenants. So that was the origin of the name for me. I should have realised that there was more to the tradition beneath the surface.

  4. Whenever I hear about either Wren Day or Good King Wenceslas, I can't help thinking of Terry Pratchett's novel Hogfather, which sends up both! :-) Thanks for the enjoyable post!


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