Boxing Day is traditionally the day following Christmas Day, when servants and tradesmen would receive gifts, known as a “Christmas box”, from their bosses or employers. Today, Boxing Day is the bank holiday that generally takes place on 26 December. It is observed in the United Kingdom, Canada, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago and some other Commonwealth nations.
In South Africa, Boxing Day was renamed Day of Goodwill in 1994. In Ireland and Italy, the day is known as St. Stephen’s Day or the Day of the Wren. In many European countries, including notably Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and those in Scandinavia, 26 December is celebrated as the Second Christmas Day.
The exact etymology of the term “boxing day” is unclear. There are several competing theories, none of which is definitive. The European tradition, which has long included giving money and other gifts to those who were needy and in service positions, has been dated to the Middle Ages, but the exact origin is unknown. It is believed to be in reference to the Alms Box placed in places of worship in order to collect donations to the poor. Also, it may come from a custom in the late Roman/early Christian era, wherein metal boxes placed outside churches were used to collect special offerings tied to the Feast of Saint Stephen which in the Western Church falls on the same day as Boxing Day.
In Britain, it was a custom for tradesmen to collect “Christmas boxes” of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. This is mentioned in Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for 19 December 1663. This custom is linked to an older English tradition: since they would have to wait on their masters on Christmas Day, the servants of the wealthy were allowed the next day to visit their families. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts and bonuses, and maybe sometimes leftover food.
Boxing Day is a secular holiday that is traditionally celebrated on 26 December, the day after Christmas Day, which is also St. Stephen’s Day, a religious holiday. When 26 December falls on a Sunday, Boxing Day in many Commonwealth countries and former British dominions is moved to 27 December. In the UK, Boxing Day is a bank holiday. If Boxing Day falls on a Saturday, the following Monday is given as a substitute bank holiday. On the occasion when Christmas Day is on a Saturday – with Boxing Day on the Sunday – the following Monday (27) and Tuesday (28) of December both become bank holidays.
In Scotland, Boxing Day has been specified as an additional bank holiday since 1974, by Royal Proclamation under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971.
In Ireland – when the island as a whole was part of the United Kingdom – the Bank Holidays Act 1871 established the feast day of St. Stephen as a non-movable public holiday on 26 December. Since the creation of the Republic of Ireland following partition in 1920, Northern Ireland – being part of the United Kingdom – officially continues to use the British name ‘Boxing Day’.
In Australia, Boxing Day is a federal public holiday. In the Australian state of South Australia, 28 December is a public holiday known as Proclamation Day and Boxing Day is not normally a public holiday. The holiday for Proclamation Day is observed on the first weekday after Christmas Day or the Christmas Day holiday. Nowadays Boxing Day is popular in Australia as the first day of a Test cricket match held at the MCG. A Test match is also often held in South Africa starting on Boxing Day.
In New Zealand Boxing Day is a statutory holiday; penalty rates and lieu time are provided to employees who work on the day.
In some Canadian provinces, Boxing Day is a statutory holiday that is always celebrated on 26 December. In Canadian provinces where Boxing Day was a statutory holiday, and it falls on a Saturday or Sunday, compensation days are given in the following week.
In Britain, Canada, and some states of Australia, Boxing Day is primarily known as a shopping holiday, much like Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) in the US. It is a time where shops have sales, often with dramatic price reductions. For many merchants, Boxing Day has become the day of the year with the greatest amount of returns. In the UK in 2009 it was estimated that up to 12 million shoppers appeared at the sales (a rise of almost 20% compared to 2008, although this was also affected by the fact that the VAT would revert to 17.5% from 1 January, following the temporary reduction to 15%).
Many retailers open very early (typically 5 am or even earlier) and offer doorbuster deals and loss leaders to draw people to their stores. It is not uncommon for long queues to form early in the morning of 26 December, hours before the opening of shops holding the big sales, especially at big-box consumer electronics retailers. Many stores have a limited quantity of big draw or deeply discounted items. Because of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, many choose to stay home and avoid the hectic shopping experience. The local media often cover the event, mentioning how early the shoppers began queueing up, providing video of shoppers queueing and later leaving with their purchased items. Many retailers have implemented practices aimed at managing large numbers of shoppers. They may limit entrances, restrict the number of patrons in a store at a time, provide tickets to people at the head of the queue to guarantee them a hot ticket item or canvass queued-up shoppers to inform them of inventory limitations.
In recent years, retailers have expanded deals to “Boxing Week.” While Boxing Day is 26 December, many retailers will run the sales for several days before or after 26 December, often up to New Year’s Eve. Notably, in the recession of late 2008, a record number of retailers were holding early promotions due to a weak economy. Canada’s Boxing Day has often been compared with the American Super Saturday, the Saturday before Christmas.
In some areas of Canada, particularly in Atlantic Canada and parts of Northern Ontario (including Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury), most retailers are prohibited from opening on Boxing Day, either by provincial law or municipal bylaw, or instead by informal agreement among major retailers in order to provide a day of relaxation following Christmas Day. In these areas, sales otherwise scheduled for 26 December are moved to the 27th.
In the Republic of Ireland, since 1902, most shops remain closed on St. Stephen’s Day. In 2009, some stores decided to open on this day, breaking a 107-year-old tradition.
In 2009, many retailers with both online and High Street stores launched their online sales on Christmas Eve and their High Street sales on Boxing Day.
In the United Kingdom, it is traditional for the Premier League (England and Wales), Scottish Premier League (Scotland) and Irish Premier League (Northern Ireland), as well as the lower divisions and rugby leagues, to hold a full programme of football and rugby league matches on Boxing Day. Traditionally, matches on Boxing Day are played against local rivals. This was originally to avoid teams and their fans having to travel a long distance to an away game on the day after Christmas Day. It also makes the day an important one in the sporting calendar. In Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, much anticipated Test matches are played on Boxing Day. Prior to the formation of leagues, a number of important rugby fixtures took place on Boxing Day notably Llanelli v London Welsh and Leicester v The Barbarians.
In horse racing, there is the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park Racecourse in Surrey. It is the second most prestigious chase in Britain, after the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Boxing Day is one of the main days in the hunting calendar for hunts in the UK and US, with most hunts (both mounted foxhound or harrier packs and foot packs of beagles or bassets) holding meets, often in town or village centres.
Australia holds the first day of the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and the start to the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race.
Several ice hockey contests are associated with the day. The IIHF World U20 Championship typically begins on 26 December, while the Spengler Cup also begins on 26 December in Davos, Switzerland; the Spengler Cup competition includes HC Davos, Team Canada, and other top European Hockey teams. The National Hockey League tends to have close to a full slate of games (11 were played in 2010), following the league-wide days off given for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In some African Commonwealth nations, particularly Ghana, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania, prize fighting contests are held on Boxing Day. This practice has also been followed for decades in Guyana and Italy.