In England (and some of the Commonwealth nations), the day after Christmas Day is known as Boxing Day. It has nothing to do with pugilism and fighting with your kith and kin, or disposing of all the cardboard boxes that your Christmas presents came in, but refers instead to the ‘boxes’, or Christmas donations, that were once given by well-to-do to their servants, tradesfolk and the deserving poor.
|Handing out the Christmas Boxes|
By some accounts, the practice began with boxes that were carried on board ships that went on lengthy voyages, and into which donations were placed to pay a priest to say masses for the safety of the vessel - this box would not be opened until the ship returned safely to harbour. The poorer passengers would beg money from the rich, with which they might make donations of their own and carried smaller boxes, into the slots of which the collected coins were dropped. This derivation, it must be said, seems unlikely, but the practice of the rich giving gifts to the poor at Christmas dates back to at least the Middle Ages.
|A Hand Out for a Hand-out|
In The Book of Christmas (1836), Thomas Kibble Hervey notes that the practice of making a list of tradespersons and others who might have a claim to a Christmas-box was still in evidence but was, at that time, beginning to decline. He traces this to the abuses of the custom that saw innumerable claims being made by all and sundry, not only family servants and trusted tradesmen, but just about anyone who provided a service of any sort. Hervey writes that in London, on Boxing Day,
“… every street resounds with the clang of hall-door knockers. Rap follows rap, in rapid succession,”
as a succession of claimants knocked on the doors, demanding their Christmas-boxes. Some of these roaming gangs went out with trumpets and drums, to announce their arrival, as Samuel Pepys noted in his Diary entry for December 28th 1668,
“Up, called up by drums and trumpets; these things and boxes having cost me much money this Christmas already, and will do more.”
One hundred and fifty years later, Hervey records a similar case,
“Called out by the parish beadle, dustmen, and charity-boys. The postman, street-sweepers, chimney-sweepers, lamp-lighters, and waits, will all be sure to wait upon me. These fellows have cost me much money this Christmas, — and will do more, the next.”
|The Poor Children's Christmas|
In another case, Hervey writes of the indignation caused when, in addition to the usual stream of the brewer, the baker, the watch, the beadles, the dustmen and all the other tradesmen, even the parish clerk turned up at his door demanding half-a-crown. In some areas, the beadle would arrive bearing a printed verse broadside, with wood engraved illustrations, which were known as Bellman’s Verses. These had, at one time, been honest, vernacular poetry written in good faith, which were given in exchange for the Christmas-box, but by the 1830s they had degenerated into cynical, manipulative, money-making doggerel, as mourned by Leigh Hunt, in his London Journal,
“No, no! Give us the good old decrepit bellman's verses, hobbling as their bringer, and taking themselves for something respectable, like his cocked-hat, — or give us none at all.”
|Leigh Hunt's London Journal - December 24 1834|
A London printer had, from 1735, printed in excess of ten thousand copies of his Bellman’s Verses each year but by the 1830s this number had fallen to less than three thousand, marking the passing of another old Christmas tradition. Another printed publication came on behalf of the Dustmen, of all people, who issued certificates proclaiming their ‘right’ to a Christmas tip (and distancing themselves from the less-deserving Scavengers). An example reads,
“TO THE WORTHY INHABITANTS OF THE SOUTHAMPTON ESTATE.Ladies and Gentlemen, — At this season, when you are pleased to give to labouring men, employed in collecting your dust, a donation, called Christmas-box, advantage of which is often taken by persons assuming the name of Dustmen, obtaining, under false pretences, your bounty, we humbly submit to your consideration to prevent such imposition, to bestow no gift on any not producing a brass figure of the following description—A Scotch Fifer, French horn, &c, between his legs. — James Dee and Jerry Cane. — Southampton Paving Act—on the bell. — Contractor — Thomas Salisbury.No connexion with scavengers—Please not to return this bill to any one.”
|Boxing Day - London|
Another paper-based Boxing Day custom has gone the way of the Bellman’s Verses, that of the parish boys exhibiting examples of their calligraphy on December 26th, in churches and schoolrooms, or taken door-to-door and donations collected from admirers of the fine penmanship.
|The Servants' Christmas|
But there is one Boxing Day custom that has, thankfully, ceased to be followed. It was the custom, in some places, to present as a Christmas gift a young, black slave child, and advertisements were issued of their availability – William Sandys condemns one such example of this ‘abomination’ in his Christmastide – its History, Festivals and Carols (1852),
“To be sold, a little mulatto, two years of age, very pretty, and well adapted for a festival present.”
Like Hunting the Wren, it’s a Christmas tradition that we are glad to have seen the back of. And good riddance.