The simplest answer is that a bank holiday is a day on which the banks are officially closed. They’re now a day that most people have off.
However, just because a day is a holiday doesn’t mean it’s a bank holiday. And just because the bank is closed, that doesn’t make it necessarily a bank holiday either. Bank holidays have a lot history and a set of rules that make them a bit different than a holiday in the United States. What’s more, depending on the country, certain holidays are celebrated while others are not.
Going back to the Medieval Period, there were approximately 45 feast days associated with various saints and figures in the Catholic Church. The observance of the feast days didn’t necessarily include a day off from work and were subject to the whims of those in power, such as when Christmas feasts were banned during the Protectorate period. Despite this, however, until 1834, the Bank of England recognised 33 feast days. In that year, it reduced the number of holidays for which is closed to four: May Day (May 1), All Saints Day (November 1), Good Friday, and Easter.
The first legislation recognising official bank holidays would not occur until Sir John Lubbock, a member of the Liberal Party and a banker, introduced the Bank Holidays Act of 1871. This officially designated four official holidays in England, Ireland, and Wales and five in Scotland. For England, Scotland, and Wales, these holidays became: Easter Monday, the first Monday in August (later changed to the last), Boxing Day, and Whit Monday, which follows Whit Sunday, the celebration of Pentecost and can vary between May and June. In Scotland, the holidays were: New Year’s Day, Good Friday, first Monday in May, first Monday in August, and Christmas.
These remained the same until 1971 when Whit Monday was replaced by the Late Spring Bank Holiday on the last Monday of May and the August bank holiday was changed from the first to the last Monday as well. Additionally, Parliament made it so that bank holidays were recognised each year by royal proclamation. Rather than falling on a particular date that moves with the day of the week, this permitted the bank holiday dates to be determined on a yearly basis. The ability of the monarchy to announce bank holidays by royal proclamation has been used for royal weddings, to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and to recognise the new millennium.
1974 saw the recognition of New Year’s Day in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, while 1978 included May Day (May 1) with the bank holidays. St. Andrew’s Day received royal assent in 2007, bringing the number of bank holidays in Scotland to nine. In Northern Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has been a recognised bank holiday since 1903 and the Governor of Norther Ireland first recognised the Battle of Boyne as a bank holiday on 12 July 1926. The latter is still proclaimed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland each year.
Another term often used interchangeably with bank holidays is public holidays. However, while public holidays can also be determined by statute or royal proclamation, the banks don’t necessarily close for them. Additionally, while banks may not close for public holidays, shops, attractions, and public buildings may be closed. Further, there is no statutory right to paid leave on bank or public holidays, though leave is often provided for by employers, especially if the business is affected by either or if the employer decides to close the business.
If you’re planning a trip to Britain, it is often a good idea to avoid the bank holidays as that’s when tourist attractions and country roads will be flooded with British people on holiday themselves. Anyone who has sat in a tailback on the A303 to the southwest can sympathize with this.
Holidays, whether bank or public, are a great time for many to go on a weekend holiday or just enjoy the time off from work. After all, even your banker needs a holiday once in a while.