December 26, 2023 - 8:00am

Among all major public holidays, Boxing Day has always occupied a strange position. Though its observance as a day of rest (or much less frequently, as an ecclesiastical day) is universal, its significance has always been somewhat uncertain.

On Boxing Day, the thrifty may shop, though the discounts are not what they used to be. The country-minded may hunt, though the Hunting Act has lately put a dampener on festivities. Those who over-indulged the day before (and few can claim to be sin-free) can rest, in the knowledge that the remaining working days of the year will be of a desultory character. But woe to he who kills small urban mammals on Boxing Day, for newspaper editors have little else to print, and you will hear no end to it.

Boxing Day’s elevation from a minor saint’s day and of alms-giving to an exalted bank holiday owed something to the triumph of the Victorian Christmas. As Christmas Day, with its sentimental family focus and imported traditions, eclipsed the remainder of the Twelve Days, the day after Christmas naturally increased in importance as a day of rest.

But its transformation from a customary day of rest and merriment to a legal one was not without controversy. When the Bank Holidays Bill, that excellent incremental Victorian reformist measure, was debated in 1871, Scottish MPs and peers complained loudly about the English “contamination” of old Scottish customs, which were now to extend to the realm of holidays.

Boxing Day was accordingly excluded from the Act for Scotland, where it would not become a bank holiday until 1974. But soon after, the old Presbyterian reluctance about Christmas was dying, thanks to English cultural imperialism.

In England, Wales, and Ireland, it was guardedly proclaimed as a day of rest under the sober name of “the twenty-sixth day of December, if a week day”. Even then, Victorian moralists fretted about the corrupting effects of the celebration upon the people.

In 1871, the first time it was observed as a bank holiday, the Times observed, not entirely approvingly, that Boxing Day was “the Saturnalia of our people, secured to it now by Act of Parliament”.

The anonymous editorialist then went on to complain about the drunkenness of the lower orders associated with the date. Had the heir to the throne not almost died a few weeks before of typhoid, and how can the masses make drunken merry so soon? But one felt that the future Edward VII, whose popularity had been greatly augmented by his near-death, would not have begrudged his future subjects a drink or 10.

If a sense of lack of purpose is now often associated with 26 December, it is in no small part due to the increase of workers’ rights and the accompanying tendency to treat the whole period between Christmas and New Year as a closed period. The two-day weekend — a fairly recent invention — did much for the trend; so did the spread of holiday pay, which enabled wage-earners to stop fretting about the loss of income associated with Christmas.

If Boxing Day today feels like a day adrift, the no man’s land between the dying year and the yet-to-be-born one, it is because we have far more occasions for leisure today, and the rarity of a day of pleasure is not what it was. As we shake off hangovers, digest optimistic amounts of food, and try to fight back the onset of holiday ennui, we may be comforted by the fact that, at least, we have the privilege of being bored and restless.

Yuan Yi Zhu is an assistant professor at Leiden University and a research fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford.