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Boxing Day’s journey from Pepys to shopping petitions and parliament

British members of Parliament have been debating whether shops should remain open on Boxing Day. Some 30 or 40 years years ago, shops stayed closed for longer during the holiday season – and on Boxing Day family time was the focus and leftover turkey the star of the show. But in recent years Boxing Day has fired the starting gun for the January sales, created (yet another) key moment in the British retail calendar and forced retail staff into work.

This growing commercialisation has created a backlash. In 2015, a petition on the government’s website to ban shops from opening on Boxing Day gathered a modest 27,525 signatures, but 2016 has seen the campaign gather greater momentum. Two similar petitions have been active this year. The first, also on the government’s official website, calls for all retailers to close on Boxing Day, claiming: “Some things are needed over the festive period, retail isn’t one of them.” It has received more than 140,000 signatures, easily meeting the required level of support to warrant the parliamentary debate. A similar petition on the website claims has gathered more than 230,000 signatures.

So what is the historical background to Boxing Day and why are we so attached to it? Is it possible that this recent groundswell of support could begin to loosen the grip of consumerism during the Christmas break?

Pepys show

The Oxford English Dictionary claims the earliest use of the term “Boxing Day” is from 1830s England. It was “the first weekday after Christmas Day, observed as a holiday on which post-men, errand-boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas box”. This relates to a seasonal British custom for tradespeople to collect boxes of money or presents after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year.

This is actually linked to an even older English tradition, mentioned by Samuel Pepys’ in a diary entry from December 19, 1663, when servants of the wealthy, who would have to wait on their masters on Christmas Day, were allowed the next day to visit their families. Employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses and sometimes leftover food.

Stony-faced. A statue of Samuel Pepys in London. chrisdorney/Shutterstock

The 2016 parliamentary debate about the modern nature of Boxing Day did not involve a vote and so there will be no immediate change in the law. However it was a chance for MPs to demonstrate whether it is an issue with much parliamentary support. In response to the petitions, the government has said:

We do not believe it is for central government to tell businesses how to run their shops or how best to serve their customers. Therefore we are not proposing to ban shops from opening on Boxing Day.

Even if there is general support in Parliament, I don’t believe the UK government will amend the current trading laws and so prevent large stores from opening on Boxing Day any time soon – for several reasons.


First, and most importantly, the retail sector is a critical part of the UK economy – and in fragile economic times it would be a brave government indeed that took any action that might damage it. Sales in the sector were £339 billion in 2015 (generating 5% of the UK’s GDP) and, with almost 3m working in retail, it was the UK’s largest private-sector employer.

An easy choice for retailers. Steve Snodgrass/Flickr, CC BY

There is also an important international dimension. The UK’s in-store sales on Boxing Day are boosted by an influx of foreign shoppers.

The second key factor reflects the radical changes seen in consumer habits as a result of online shopping, a point also acknowledged by the government in its response to previous Boxing Day petitions:

Consumers are now used to the freedom to buy what they need at any time that suits them. The government believes that all businesses should be allowed flexibility to meet their customers’ needs and offer consumers choice about when and how they want to shop. This will help drive competition, productivity and the local economy, as well as helping create jobs

Unsurprisingly, this is a view echoed by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) the trade association whose members represent 70% of the turnover of the UK retail sector.

Sacred time

That leads onto a third factor behind the government’s decision making. According to the Guardian, shoppers last year were more willing than ever to interrupt Christmas Day itself for some online bargain hunting.

Online sales in the UK on Dec 25, 2015 were the highest ever, up 21% on 2014 according to web services group PCA Predict – whose founder Jamie Turner highlighted the “convenience of being able to browse online throughout the entire Christmas period to find deals and discounts”.

‘No shopping at the dinner table please.’ Jamie Henderson/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

However, there is one thing that seems to remain sacred. Experian and online retail trade association IMRG reported a dip in online between 1pm and 4pm on Christmas Day as families enjoyed Christmas lunch together (and perhaps even watched the Queen’s speech), then rising again in the evening as people sat down to relax and watch television.

At the heart of this debate lies the fear of missing out. For the government, for retailers and their shareholders, and for millions of bargain-hunting consumers. According to the BRC, the UK retail market is the “most competitive in the world” and in that context it becomes almost unimaginable that any large retailers would now make a voluntary decision to close on Boxing Day and so lose sales and market share to rivals.

The British boom in online shopping – the UK has the highest level of penetration in the world – has also brought with it the “click-and-collect” phenomenon. In other words, both parts of the UK retail industry work hand-in-hand – there will be millions of UK consumers who want to order products online over the Christmas holiday period and collect from a store on Boxing Day. More, you have to conclude, than the 140,000 petition signatories who long for a Christmas free from the ringing of the nation’s cash registers (or the sound of clicking on the pay now button).

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