A Brief History of Boxing Day

While retailers across the United States assess the performance of their recent Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales campaigns, marketers in several other countries are gearing up for their biggest shopping day of the year.  Boxing Day, as it is referred to, has a long history as the “unofficial holiday for shopping” and recent events could see it become a staple in America as well.  Here is some background information on this holiday celebrated in many Commonwealth countries around the globe.

First, the origins of the name.  In Europe, there has been a long history of giving money and other gifts to those in need and in “service” positions.  This has dated back as far as the Middle Ages. Some believe that the term “Boxing Day” refers to the “Alms Box”, often placed in places of worship and used to collect donations for the poor. In the Roman and early Christian period came the Feast of Saint Stephen, which falls on the same day each year as Boxing Day. Saint Stephen, is first mentioned in biblical scriptures as one of the seven deacons appointed by the Apostles who distribute food and charitable aid to the poor.  This is the connection to the specific date and the term “Boxing”, according to some historians.

The first documented reports of a formal “day off” on Boxing Day comes from letters written in 1663.  This was when it was first reported in the United Kingdom of a tradition where tradespeople collected “Christmas boxes” of presents, money, or gifts on the very first weekday following Christmas.  This was done as a way to receive a bonus or thank you for their hard work all year.  Since they would have to service the needs of their master on Christmas Day, many servants of the wealthy were given the next day off to visit their respective families. As they left the estates, they would take boxes with them filled with gifts from the lord or master and in certain cases, leftover food for the families they planned to spend the day with.

In the UK, parts of Australia, and Canada; Boxing Day is considered to be a “shopping holiday” with many stores liquidating merchandise with deep discounts.  Many of the tactics used to attract discount shoppers during Black Friday are used, particularly in Canada where it is not uncommon for “Boxing Week” blowout sales to occur starting on the 26th of December.  In recent years, some of these sales have started the week leading up to Christmas as a last push to attract shoppers looking to complete their holiday gift buying.

Across the Commonwealth, Boxing Day has some degree of connection to the locals as being a holiday.  However, whether it is a paid versus unpaid holiday varies from country to country.  The majority of former British colonies treat the 26th as a bank holiday – meaning that automatic right to time off is not granted to employees, however the majority of the working population has paid time off or compensated extra for working on these days. When the 26th of December falls on a Saturday or Sunday, many countries move the holiday to the following Monday. However most Boxing Day “sales” still occur on the 26th, if allowed by law.

While the tradition of Boxing Day has remained a Commonwealth phenomenon, other countries do celebrate Saint Stephen’s Day, to some degree.  This is of course without the commercialization one has come to expect with Boxing Day.  In the United States, the appeal of Boxing Day hasn’t been able to overcome the popularity of the post-Thanksgiving sales tied to Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  However, this could be changing.

Two weeks ago, The Washington Post reported that Barack Obama decided to give federal employees a holiday present a little early by issuing an executive order giving them the day after Christmas off.   According to the release, “all executive branch departments and agencies of the Federal Government shall be closed and their employees excused from duty on Friday, December 26, 2014, the day after Christmas Day,” the order says.

Could this be the first step towards the United States adopting Boxing Day as an additional shopping holiday?  It looks like consumers will just have to wait and see.

Photo Credit: © Andris Piebalgs

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