Boxing Day is a holiday traditionally celebrated the day following Christmas Day, when servants and tradespeople would receive gifts, known as a “Christmas box”, from their bosses or employers, in the United Kingdom, Barbados, Canada, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, South Africa, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and other former British colonies. Today, Boxing Day is the bank holiday that generally takes place on 26 December.
In South Africa, Boxing Day was renamed Day of Goodwill in 1994. Due to the Roman Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar, the day is known as St. Stephen’s Day to Catholics, and in Italy, Finland along with Alsace and Moselle in France. It is also known as both St. Stephen’s Day and the Day of the Wren or Wren’s Day in Ireland. In many European countries, including notably Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and those in Scandinavia, 26 December is celebrated as the Second Christmas Day.
Various competing theories for the origins of the term boxing day circulate in popular culture, none of which is definitive. However, the Oxford English Dictionary gives the earliest attestations of the term as being from England in the 1830s, defining it as
The first week-day after Christmas-day, observed as a holiday on which post-men, errand-boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas-box.
The term Christmas-box, meanwhile, dates back to the seventeenth century, and amongst other things meant
A present or gratuity given at Christmas: in Great Britain, usually confined to gratuities given to those who are supposed to have a vague claim upon the donor for services rendered to him as one of the general public by whom they are employed and paid, or as a customer of their legal employer; the undefined theory being that as they have done offices for this person, for which he has not directly paid them, some direct acknowledgement is becoming at Christmas.
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 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 tradespeople 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 sometimes leftover food.
In the UK, Canada, and some states of Australia, Boxing Day is primarily known as a shopping holiday, much like Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving in America). Boxing Day sales are common in Canada. 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 was about to 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 queuing up, providing video of shoppers queuing 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.
… and now you know.