I remember once trying, as a Canadian, to explain Boxing Day to an American friend.
“A day off on the 26th?” she asked, bewildered. “Why do you need a holiday when you’ve just had one?”
The answer, in that case, was firmly in the question. The genius of Boxing Day is that it’s a holiday from the holidays — which means it’s the holiday we all need right about now.
The origins of Boxing Day, which is observed in Britain, Canada and several Commonwealth countries, are English, rooted in a tradition of offering a little something to the poor and to servants on Dec. 26. The moneyed employers would give a box of goods to the help to take with them as they visited their families the day after Christmas — since they had been working on Christmas Day itself.
Hence, Boxing Day.
During the 19th century, the tradition morphed into a statutory holiday, then spread throughout the Empire. Our rebellious American cousins had already seceded by then, which might explain why Canada has Boxing Day and the United States doesn’t.
Any traditional role the holiday may once have served quickly gave way, during the 20th century, to its current function, at least in Canada: self-indulgence. Christmas belongs to the family. On Boxing Day, you do you.
You can get absolutely plastered and watch the World Junior Hockey Championships with your buddies — a popular choice. You can show off your toys to your friends rather than listen to your grandparents drone on about Christmases past. Above all, you can shop: Boxing Day, or properly, Boxing Week, has become the biggest shopping season of the year in Canada, outranking even Black Friday in November — a tradition Canada has borrowed from the U.S., despite celebrating Thanksgiving on a Monday in October.
But the true appeal of Boxing Day is not the sales, it’s the pressure it takes off Dec. 25. Christmas is a joy, but it’s also a lot of work. The promise of Boxing Day — a day just for you — makes it all so much more bearable. During Christmas, if your family is driving you crazy, if the food is too heavy, if you didn’t get what you wanted, there’s always tomorrow. Boxing Day recognizes that, sometimes, holiday love is not enough. You need holiday fun, too.
Not to offend anyone but I’ve always been bewildered that Americans have passed up the chance to add another holiday to the calendar, especially one dedicated to self-indulgence. Maybe Boxing Day is one of those Canadian things, like Coffee Crisp and the Tragically Hip, that seem as if they would work perfectly well in the U.S. but just don’t translate.
Traditions do evolve, though, and Boxing Day is well worth appropriating. Today, celebrate your own private Boxing Day and do whatever you want. Tell anyone that objects that you’re secretly Canadian, if only for 24 hours.