If you celebrate Christmas, you may be familiar with a certain, rather specific post-25th feeling. The gifts have been unwrapped, stray bits of paper still strewn here and there. The feast has been savored, indulgent and delicious. The merriment was by all accounts merry. Yet after weeks of baking and twinkling lights, there is a wee bit of a letdown – a twinge of wistfulness as “the most wonderful time of the year” recedes.
Luckily there is a solution, courtesy of the British: Boxing Day.
A British bank holiday observed the day after Christmas (or the Monday that follows if it falls on a weekend), Boxing Day extends the revelry in a wonderfully low-key way. Well…usually. For some, the contemporary expression of Boxing Day comes in the form of hunting, hiking or a Boxing Day Swim, the UK equivalent of a polar-bear plunge. There is also ample sport of the retail variety, a shopping frenzy that has garnered a Black-Friday style backlash.
For most, however, this is a laid-back affair, centered on food, family and friends who drop in for a bite and a dram of the good stuff. If there is activity, it involves football matches on TV and multiple visits to the buffet, piled high with leftovers that have been transformed into a Boxing Day feast. It’s all of the festive, without the formality.
If, like me, you’re not British, here’s a way to think about it. You know how the day after Thanksgiving is just a hair away from being better than the day itself? You’re home. The fridge is full. Maybe you’re indulging in a bit of daytime PJs? Boxing Day is like that, minus the pajamas.
The roots of the holiday are a bit obscured, though it is generally agreed that it dates to the Victorian era – or at least, that’s when Queen Victoria included it in the Bank Holidays Act, which was passed by Parliament in 1871. At the time, Australia, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand were all in the Commonwealth, so the day lives on in those countries, along with places like Hong Kong and South Africa, which had been under British rule.
Some say the day is named after the Anglican Church’s donation boxes, the contents of which were distributed to those in need just after Christmas. Others suggest that its history resides in the post-Christmas tipping of tradespeople in thanks for (and anticipation of) loyal service. Jonathan Swift once complained: “I shall be undone here with Christmas boxes.” In Ireland, Boxing Day is known as St. Stephen’s Day, which honors the first Christian martyr. This is when “Good King Wenceslas” peered at Steven’s feast and was compelled to give alms to a poor man.
The most prevalent origin story casts Boxing Day as Christmas for the servants, who had to work through the holiday proper. The following day, royals and the elite would send them home with food and gifts, relieving them of their responsibilities. “They’d box up the leftovers that they had served to the royalty or the landlords,” says Gary Coleman, a Cirencester native born to a British-Irish mom and American dad. Based in Haddonfield, NJ, he runs The English Gardener gift shop with his wife, Denise Strojan.
Fast-forward to modern times, and Boxing Day is essentially Christmas part two, when everything’s just a bit more relaxed. The jolly man has come and gone. The pressure is off. Yet the spell of holiday cheer remains, often in the form of a “nibbly bits.” According to Coleman, it often starts with brunch. “There’s bubble and squeak, made of leftover veggies and cabbage, mixed together and fried. You put eggs on top of it.” At the British Chip Shop, another of his UK-centric businesses, he nods to the tradition with an all-day full English breakfast.
Photo: Ewan Munro/Flickr
“You’ll also do the leftovers from your Christmas roast, like your roast beef and Yorkshire pudding,” Coleman says. “Some people do ham. Some people do turkey.” Coleman’s family was in the roast-beef camp, pairing it with potatoes, veggies (included dreaded lima beans), and whatever else family members brought over as day turned into night.
“When I lived in England, we would eat Christmas turkey for days afterwards, including Boxing Day,” says Miles Holland, a native of Yorkshire who now lives in New Jersey. “My mum would normally make a turkey pie. As for tradition, the one additional thing I remember – other than endless leftovers – is that a James Bond movie would always be shown on ITV on that day that my siblings and I would watch with joy.” Holland has attempted to recreate the Bond tradition with his American-born children, who so far have resisted.
The guiding principle of the meal is encapsulated in a single word: ease. Rather than cooking, one makes due…granted with a fridge packed full. There are sandwiches and turkey curry. There are the remains of the Christmas cheeseboard and pasties filled with – you guessed it – Christmas dinner. The point is to gather and celebrate, not to labor in the kitchen.
Of course, nothing pairs with a leftover feast like leftover desserts. A Christmas staple, mince pies are often on the menu, as is Christmas pudding served with brandy or rum butter – which is set alight on the table where it sizzles with a blue flame. “Traditionally, it would come with a sixpence,” Coleman says, a form of good luck for the recipient who found it in their slice. Should you go the mincemeat route, he recommends 13-14 seconds in the microwave, and a topping of vanilla ice cream or Bird’s custard. “It’s like a double whammy: you get mince pies on Christmas Day and also on Boxing Day,” he says.
Photo: Smabs Sputzer/Flickr
For Coleman’s family, Boxing Day was also the official time for Christmas crackers — those paper-wrapped tubes that open with a crack, revealing a crown and cracker-jack style prizes. From there, the equation is simple: “You sit around the table, eating, drinking and wearing paper crowns.” Let’s take a moment to break that down:
Wearing paper crowns.
Though it may be little known in the United States, this is the kind of holiday that it’s easy to get behind. Kids enjoy their presents. Family comes and goes. There’s a good game on the TV and lovely things to eat. So to you and yours, happy Boxing Day!
Jenn Hall writes about food and culture from a Jersey-side suburb of Philly. Follow along at jennhallwrites.com and on Instagram & Twitter @jennhallwrites.