6 Things You Should Know About Boxing Day

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Relax, Hallmark conspiracy theorists: Boxing Day isn’t some prank to confuse America. It’s a real holiday in the United Kingdom and other European countries that dates back to the days of Queen Victoria. Here are some facts to get you up to speed.

1. IT OCCURS ON DECEMBER 26TH.

Boxing Day is observed every year on December 26. If it falls on a weekend, the public holiday itself will be celebrated on Monday. It became an official holiday during the reign of Queen Victoria, though some historians trace its origins back much further—to medieval times. Today, it's largely an extension of the Christmas holiday and a big day for sporting events and shopping.

2. NO ONE REALLY KNOWS WHERE THE NAME ORIGINATED.

Many historians think the holiday’s name is derived from the church practice of opening alms boxes the day after Christmas and distributing money to the poor. Historically, British employers followed the church’s lead by sliding workers and servants gifts or cash on December 26.

Others believe the "box" refers to the boxes of gifts employers gave to their servants on the day after Christmas. (In wealthy households, servants were often required to work on Christmas Day but given December 26th off in order to celebrate the holiday on their own.)

3. IT'S A BIG DAY FOR SHOPPING.

Historically, Boxing Day's post-Christmas sales have long made it one of the U.K.'s busiest shopping days of the year. And while it still falls within the top five biggest shopping days of the year, the popularity of online shopping has reduced the overall spending people do on December 26.

“Fifteen years ago it was pretty much guaranteed that you would only get big sales a few times a year—Boxing Day and the big summer clearance," Bryan Roberts, an analyst at Kantar Retail, told The Telegraph in 2015. That is no longer the case.” 

“The Boxing Day sales are pretty much dead,” Roberts added. “Black Friday and Cyber Monday illustrate Christmas sales are starting earlier and earlier. There is a possibility prices will just keep on dropping in the run-up to Christmas. This makes the Boxing Day sales incredibly diluted."

4. THERE IS NO BOXING INVOLVED.

Despite the name, British observances of Boxing Day involve no fisticuffs. For patricians, however, another sport rules the day: fox hunting. Though it's a long-held tradition, many animal rights activists and groups would like to see the practice done away with altogether. Especially since, technically, it's illegal. In the days leading up to Boxing Day, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) was very vocal in reminding citizens that "The chasing or killing of foxes and other British mammals with a pack of dogs was banned because the overwhelming majority of the UK public rejected this so-called 'sport' as cruel and abhorrent."

5. SOME OTHER COUNTRIES DO TAKE THE NAME MORE LITERALLY.

In other countries, Boxing Day celebrations are more literal. Some former British colonies in Africa and the Caribbean celebrate the holiday with prizefighting events.

6. IN IRELAND, IT'S KNOWN AS WREN DAY.

Ireland sometimes refers to December 26 as Wren Day, a nod to an old tradition in which poor children would kill a wren, then sell the feathers to neighbors for good luck. In today’s celebrations, the wren is fake.

Can You Spot the Christmas Stocking in This Hidden Image Puzzle?

It's time for another hidden image puzzle! This time, Lenstore.co.uk's Can You Spot It? puzzle features a smattering of Yule-themed objects like Santa hats, gingerbread men, snowmen, presents, and Christmas trees. Can you find the lone Christmas stocking hidden among them?

According to Lenstore.co.uk, it takes most people around 45 seconds to find objects in most of their hidden-image puzzles, and women tend to be faster at finding them than men. (Try out some of the previous puzzles here, here, and here.)

Before you peek at the answer, read up on the history of the Christmas stocking here. Like many Christmas traditions, its origins are pretty unclear, but one thing is for sure: We should all be grateful that we've long since moved on from stringing up the regular socks we wear every day.

Scroll down to see the answer, then try your hand at one of our close-up image quizzes.

What is Wassailing, Anyway?

iStock
iStock

It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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