By Michelle Schmidt
The answer is no; fighting is not a recognized Boxing Day tradition. That’s because the holiday references boxes, not the combative sport of boxing. (Remember, this is Canada we’re talking about; “being nice” is a citizen responsibility.)
For all practical purposes, Boxing Day is simply a second day of Christmas. Even without any commonly practiced traditions, how the day is celebrated has changed over the years.
Boxing Day Past and Present
In the recent century, before the mid-1970s, Boxing Day was just a quiet day that followed Christmas.
“For most of us, it was the day to go and enjoy your Christmas presents,” said Don Greggain, who grew up in Saskatchewan and now lives in Clarkston. Since Christmas was always white, it wasn’t uncommon for he and his siblings to get a sled or skates or a hockey stick.
For many families, it’s an extra day to celebrate Christmas with extended family members. Cliff Knelson, who grew up in Alberta and now lives in Lewiston, remembers celebrating Christmas Day with one parent’s side of the family and Boxing Day with the other. Christianna Calder, who grew up in Grangeville and Orofino and now lives in Manitoba, spends the day celebrating Christmas with nearby in-laws.
But around the 1970s, things began to change. Growing up in Ontario, Samantha Franklin, now of Lewiston, remembers that stores were required to remain closed, so there wasn’t anything to do but spend time with friends and family. And now?
“It’s another shopping day,” Franklin said.
And not just any shopping day: Boxing Day in Canada has become like Black Friday in the United States. Stores open early, huge sales take place and roads are clogged with cars full of people rushing to get good deals.
There seem to be three main roots to what is now Boxing Day. The first and oldest is Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival that took place at winter solstice, during which slaves would trade places with their masters. The second root, perhaps related, was a practice that appears to have begun during the Middle Ages, when slaves and tradespeople would be given the day off to celebrate Christmas because they would have had to work on Christmas Day.
“On this day, their masters would pack up boxes for them to be able to take home. Sometimes it was leftover food from the day before, but they might also put in presents or a bonus. And they would put it all in a Christmas box,” Greggain explained.
The third root has to do with alms boxes. Churches would collect money throughout the season and distribute it to those who were less fortunate the day after Christmas, a practice that may be as tied to St. Stephen’s Day as Boxing Day.
Most Canadians have a vague understanding of the holiday, citing some part or mix of these roots as its background. Whatever its origins, any former traditions have faded and given way to a fourth root in commercial enterprise, as Greggain joked about the “armed combat shopping” that now characterizes the day.
Why don’t we get to have Boxing Day?
We can blame our lack of a holiday on the Revolutionary War. The holiday is a Commonwealth tradition and has been practiced for centuries in England and spread with colonialism. It remains a national holiday in countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, South Africa, and several Caribbean nations that are — or were — part of the Commonwealth.
Both Knelson and Greggain also point out that because the Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated much earlier — the second Monday of October — Canadians don’t have the same monthlong holiday season that we do in the U.S.
“We don’t have a November family holiday, so Christmas became a bigger deal,” said Greggain, explaining that Boxing Day serves the purpose of extending the season a bit after Christmas through the New Year.
Schmidt can be contacted at email@example.com or at (208) 305-4578.