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 annually 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) is often 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, December 26th is sometimes 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.

Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

iStock
iStock

Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

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

If March 15 Is the Ides of March, What Does That Make March 16?

iStock.com/bycostello
iStock.com/bycostello

Everyone knows that the soothsayer in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was talking about March 15 when he warned the Roman emperor to "beware the Ides of March." We also all know Caesar's response: "Nah, I gotta head into the office that day." But if March 15 is the Ides of March, what does that make March 16?

At the time of Caesar's assassination, Romans were using the Julian calendar (introduced by Julius Caesar himself). This was a modified version of the original Roman calendar, and it is very similar to the one we use today (which is called the Gregorian calendar). A major difference, however, was how Romans talked about the days.

Each month had three important dates: the Kalends (first day of the month), the Ides (the middle of the month), and the Nones (ninth day before the Ides, which corresponded with the first phase of the Moon). Instead of counting up (i.e., March 10, March 11, March 12), Romans kept track by counting backwards and inclusively from the Kalends, Ides, or Nones. March 10 was the sixth day before the Ides of March, March 11 was the fifth day before the Ides of March, and so on.

Because it came after the Ides, March 16 would’ve been referred to in the context of April: "The 17th day before the Kalends of April." The abbreviated form of this was a.d. XVII Kal. Apr., with "a.d." standing for ante diem, meaning roughly "the day before."

So, had Julius Caesar been murdered on March 16, the soothsayer's ominous warning would have been, "Beware the 17th day before the Kalends of April." Doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

This story first ran in 2016.

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