Why is it called Boxing Day? The origins of the public holiday after Christmas

decorated calendar displaying Boxing Day

Danny Baggs

Posted December 20, 2022

Everyone knows Boxing Day is on December 26 and offers up great shopping sales and deep discounts, but why is it called Boxing Day? Dive into the surprising origins of Boxing Day and why it’s become synonymous with bargain hunting.

There are two kinds of people on Boxing Day in Australia: those who enjoy a relaxing day watching the cricket after a busy Christmas Day, and those who brave the shopping centres (or go online) to spend their gift cards and hunt for the famous Boxing Day sales. Although Boxing Day is starting to be outshone by Black Friday, it’s still an integral part of the Australian shopping calendar.

So, while many Australians love this public holiday for different reasons, why is it called Boxing Day and where did the holiday come from?

Boxing Day: originally a day of charity

In Victorian England (1837-1901), gifts were traditionally presented to servants, tradespeople and the poor the day after Christmas. Servants had to work for their wealthy employers on Christmas Day to prepare the Christmas feast and otherwise ensure the day ran smoothly. The following day, servants got leave to spend time with their own families and were often presented with a Christmas box to take home. In their absence, the wealthy family ate informal meals of leftovers – much like Boxing Day meals today.

Christmas boxes could contain all sorts of goodies from wealthy families: money, quality hand-me-down clothes, books, linens, ribbons, and delicious leftovers from the Christmas feast. Boxes were also distributed to tenants who lived and worked on the family’s lands, and sometimes even tradespeople who regularly serviced the household.

In the 1830s, the term Boxing Day came to supersede the previous name St Stephen’s Day for the day after Christmas. Boxing Day was officially declared a public holiday in 1871, falling on December 26.


woman holding bundle of Christmas boxes

The name Boxing Day refers to charitable boxes, not your typical gift boxes. Image: Getty

Boxing Day around the world

While the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other Commonwealth countries typically celebrate Boxing Day, December 26 is celebrated differently around the world.

In several parts of Europe, such as Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy Hungary, Sweden and Ukraine, 26 December is called St Stephen’s Day, or the Feast of Stephen. St Stephen lived in Rome and was martyred for believing in the Christian teachings. His feast day was set as 26 December in the Christian calendar of saints. Because Stephen was a deacon who distributed food and charitable aid to poorer members of his community, the day became associated with charity.

Elsewhere Boxing Day isn’t celebrated in any form. There is no Boxing Day holiday in the USA, because British Boxing Day traditions began after British settlers landed in the Americas. Most of Asia also does not celebrate Boxing Day, except for Hong Kong.


people lining up outside Bourke St Mall's David Jones on Boxing Day

Boxing Day sales entice many Australians to line up for great deals. Image: Getty

Modern Boxing Day traditions in Australia

Boxing Day sales

Although Boxing Day is a public holiday, many Australian stores provide extended shopping hours. Thousands of Australians go to the shops on Boxing Day to spend their gift cards and take advantage of special Boxing Day sales. It’s not just physical goods that go on offer, either: services and experiences like travel packages also go on discount, like RACV Travel & Experiences' Boxing Day sale from December 26.

Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground

Australians all over the country tune in to the famous Test Match on Boxing Day, or even attend in person at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). Cricket fans can thank the Melbourne Cricket Club for this tradition, since they secured the rights to an annual Boxing Day test match in 1980. Now, each year the Australian cricket team plays against a touring international team: this year, it will be South Africa.


crowds at the MCG's Boxing Day Test Match

Australia will play South Africa at the 2022 Boxing Day Test Match. Image: Getty

Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race

The famous Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race has set sail on Boxing Day ever since 1945. This gruelling race sees yachts skim out of the Sydney Harbour all the way to Hobart’s Constitution Dock over 628 nautical miles. The Tasman Sea and the Bass Strait are renowned for their high winds and difficult seas, which makes the journey cold and perilous. Several yachts are forced to retire each year at Eden, New South Wales: the last sheltered harbour before the challenging crossing to Flinders Island and then to Hobart. The race takes 3 to 4 days in total, with the winners usually crossing the finish line in just under 48 hours.

Blockbuster movie releases

If you’re not into shopping or sport, Boxing Day also launches a wealth of new films across Australian cinemas every year. The biggest blockbusters even have midnight screenings at 12.01am for rabid fans. Check out some of the most anticipated Boxing Day movie releases here, including the highly anticipated blockbuster Avatar: The Way of Water. RACV Members save on movie tickets at Village, HOYTS, Palace, Event, Moonlight and IMAX cinemas.


a yacht in the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race

The Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race is a gruelling journey. Image: Getty

RACV Travel & Experiences are hosting a big Boxing Day sale.
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