December 05, 2004

A "boxing day election" -- or not?

Some British media have written about the 12/26 Ukrainian election re-run as taking place on boxing day. For example, The Scotsman's headline was "Ukraine Supreme Court Orders New Boxing Day Election". I knew that "boxing day" is December 26 -- or I thought I knew that -- but I didn't know the origin of the phrase. Though I'd never given it much thought, I guess I connected it instinctively with fisticuffs, dimly imagining some traditional festival of the manly art.

Wrong. The Oxford English Dictionary glosses box, v. as

1.b. To give a Christmas-box (colloq.); whence boxing-day.

and Boxing-day, in turn, is glossed 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 American Heritage Dictionary agrees:

The first weekday after Christmas, celebrated as a holiday in parts of the British Commonwealth, when Christmas gifts are traditionally given to service workers.

But this year, December 26 falls on a Sunday. So is boxing day really December 27 this year? Or is the OED's definition out of date? Inquiring minds want to know...

A bit of googling adds information without entirely clearing this up:

  • The highest-ranked site is a Canadian Heritage page that offers up some other theories: "The term may come from the opening of church poor boxes that day; maybe from the earthenware boxes with which boy apprentices collected money at the doors of their masters' clients."
  • Second is a Snopes page that debunks another false etymology:"boxing day" does not refer to "the need to rid the house of empty boxes the day after Christmas".
  • A page at is third; it gives several theories about the etymology of the term and concludes unhelpfully that "the actual origin of this holiday is debatable and has been debated, one idea being more popular than the other at a given time". With respect to scheduling, it says that "Some places observe Boxing Day on December 26th and some celebrate it on the first weekday following Christmas."
  • Elaine's Boxing Day Page, in fourth place, puts in the first sentence the information that boxing day is "celebrated in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada", and goes on to claim that "[t]he holiday may date from as early as the Middle Ages".

I'm skeptical of the speculations about ancient origins -- surely the most parsimonious explanation for the fact that there's no trace of the term (or the concept) in U.S. culture would be that it's a 19th-century innovation? And indeed the earliest citations in the OED are from the 1830s:

1833 in A. MATHEWS Mem. C. Mathews (1839) IV. viii. 173 To the completion of his dismay, he arrives in London on boxing-day.
1837 DICKENS Pickw. xxxii. 343 No man ever talked in poetry 'cept a beadle on boxin' day.

It's true that these feel like uses of a long-established word, sure to be understood by the reader. But that would be consistent with an origin at some time during the 50-odd years since 1776.

[Update 12/6/2004: Des von Bladet explains via email that

It doesn't get more official than the Department of Trade and Industry, which gives (in a browser for which they have failed to pessimise) the 27th December as a Bank Holiday in lieu of the 26th:

So I think Boxning Day is still where it should be. (And, impressively, its day in lieu is _followed_ by the day in lieu of Twinkletree herself.)

doesn't guarantee to observe them in that order

OK, is that clear to everyone? This year, Boxing Day is December 27, and Christmas Day is December 28, according to the UK Department of Trade and Industry. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 5, 2004 01:31 PM