Colonel R. H. Webb, ca. 1927
Boxing Day is a British tradition, the day after Christmas when servants or apprentices would receive a Christmas box, (gift), and time off from their master. It had developed into great sporting day in the U.K. featuring top boxing matches and premiership football games that were covered in here in wire stories in the sports pages.
December 16, 1930, Winnipeg Tribune
Webb first raised the issue of making the day national holiday in December 1930. It was not for tradition's sake, but because many city people went to visit family in rural areas for Christmas and, especially in the West where travel infrastructure was not as wide reaching as it was in more established parts of the country, "...a two day holiday would make it much easier for them.”
Webb noted that some workplaces, such as in the lumber industry, traditionally closed from Christmas to New Years to do an extensive inventory of their yards. (Webb ran a lumber yard for many years.)
When asked why not just declare a civic holiday, Webb said that would be no good. A civic holiday would only allow city employees to get the day off, “But a federal holiday would be different….” (The following year both Regina and Vancouver made Boxing Day civic holidays in their cities.)
Mayor Webb wrote to the federal government about the idea but got no response. In February 1931 Winnipeg city council passed a formal motion calling on the federal government to declare December 26th a national holiday but, again, no official reply.
March 19, 1934, Winnipeg Free Press
In 1932 Webb won a seat in the provincial election and sat concurrently as mayor and MLA for Assiniboia until the December 1934 civic election. This allowed him to take his Boxing Day campaign to the next level.
On March 21, 1934, he introduced a motion in the legislature to have Manitoba declare Boxing Day a provincial holiday. It sailed through the house with no opposition and received its third reading on March 29th.
The day before the official proclamation was signed by Lieutenant Governor W. J. Tupper on December 8, 1934, Webb told the Winnipeg Tribune: “…it is my sincere hope that the day will be universally observed as it is in the Old Country and elsewhere. It is intended largely to provide a rest for the store clerks who must necessarily be fatigued by the Christmas rush.... The idea of Boxing Day is to provide another day for mirth and general rejoicing.”
December 8, 1934, Winnipeg Tribune
The late date of the declaration left some employers scrambling to schedule work and workers. One group of workers that were not happy were hourly employees, for whom the holiday simply meant an unpaid day. The City of Winnipeg tried to set an example for others by rescheduling its hourly workers so that they would get another day off in lieu. The railways, not covered by the provincial law, followed suit.
Webb again called on the feds to declare a national holiday so that even federal government employees, such as post office and customs workers, could also get the day of. They declined.
By this time, Webb's campaign had received national attention and dozens of other cities, especially in Saskatchewan, declared Boxing Day 1934 a civic holiday. In terms of provinces, Manitoba was the first, followed by British Columbia in 1935.
December 24, 1934, Winnipeg Tribune
How did the first Boxing Day go?
Despite the last minute proclamation, the holiday appears to have been a success and supported by big retail and offices. This was probably thanks in part to Webb, as mayor, very publicly instructing the police department to be on the lookout for stores flouting the law.
The Tribune reported quiet streets with the odd automobile and streetcars running on a holiday schedule passing by. The Winnipeg Grain Exchange closed, putting it out of step with other North American exchanges. The fire department had their busiest day of the winter as people stayed home and lit fires to stay warm in the -20 to -30 temperatures, causing dozens of chimney fires.