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Lesley Haynes: Boxing Day traditions are still dear to my heart

I was born and raised in London, England, and even though I have traveled extensively I realize that I am still English to the core when it comes to traditions.

There is nothing too unusual about how we spend Christmas Day in the U.K. Families gather around the tree in the morning and exchange gifts. Later, before eating dinner, we pull Christmas crackers and delight at the small gifts, fortune messages and paper hats found inside. In my family, the children (and most adults) wore the colorful hats during dinnertime. A typical dinner is roast turkey, parsley and thyme stuffing, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, Yorkshire pudding, mince pies and custard.

At 3 p.m. we would turn on the TV to watch Queen Elizabeth’s annual Christmas speech to the nation. The rest of the day and evening was spent lounging around as we snacked on trifle and fruitcake and had a drink or two.

But we also celebrate Dec. 26, Boxing Day. A traditional, secular English holiday, it has been officially recognized since 1871 and is observed by banks, government offices and the post office.

Despite its name, it has nothing to do with pugilistic competition. Nor is it a day for people to return unwanted Christmas presents. Even though many no longer remember the traditional reason for Boxing Day, it is still celebrated in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and in most areas where the English settled.

Boxing Day began in England during the Middle Ages and continued through the Victorian era. During those times, wealthy households would celebrate Christmas Day while their servants continued with their normal work schedule, thereby missing out on the celebration.

Affluent families would set aside the next day as the time to supply servants with a Christmas dinner and a gift. There was nothing voluntary about this transaction; the lord of the manor was expected to provide these items. They were placed into boxes, one box for each family, thus, the day came to be known as Boxing Day.

In modern times, few families have servants. However, it is still customary for everyone to tip the postman and give the paperboy an extra tip at Christmastime.

The day has become synonymous with sports. Horse racing is particularly popular, with meets all over the country. Many top football and rugby teams also play. I am happy to report that fox hunts, which were held all over the English countryside for hundreds of years, were banned by Parliament in 2004. The traditional method of using dogs to kill the foxes has ended; the sport continues but without the violence.

Many Brits show their true eccentricity by taking part in challenging activities, like swimming in the chilly English Channel or attending fun runs and charity events.

My childhood memories of Boxing Day are that we spent a cozy day together as a family, relaxing, enjoying our presents and eating leftovers from Christmas dinner as we watched British comedies on TV. Our dad worked six days a week and it was a treat to have him at home.

I have traveled to many different countries, but no matter where I have lived I never miss celebrating Boxing Day – the day of tradition, family and counting our blessings.