“This, like many other of our ancient customs, is much abused, and is made the vehicle for much annoyance; yet at the same time so much has been done towards depriving the lower classes of their amusements, that we cannot wonder at their making the most of those that remain.”
In Great Britain, Canada, Australia and a handful of other countries that were once part of the British Empire, December 26th is a holiday known as Boxing Day. The origins of this day are somewhat unclear even to many of those who celebrate it, so today we’ll take a look at what we know of its history.
This is not as simple as you might think, as Britain’s official written records are surprisingly quiet on the details. The 26th of December was given legal status as a holiday in England, Wales and Ireland by the Bank Holidays Act of 1871, but the language of the act only specifies “the day after Christmas Day” without referring to Boxing Day or its traditions.
Charles Dickens, an author forever associated with Christmas in the minds of the public, hardly gives a mention to Boxing Day in any of his works. Reference to it is conspicuously absent from A Christmas Carol (1843); indeed Mr. Scrooge, after grudgingly allowing Bob Cratchit to take Christmas Day off, admonishes him to “Be here all the earlier next morning.” Boxing Day appears just once in Dickens’ writings, in The Pickwick Papers (1837), when Sam Weller’s father informs his son that “Poetry’s unnat’ral; no man ever talked poetry ‘cept a beadle on boxin’ day,” which doesn’t help us much. (A beadle was a parish constable, appointed by the church, to keep order and punish petty offenders.)
The earliest ‘official’ definition we have comes from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1887:
“Boxing-day. The first week-day after Christmas-day, observed as a holiday on which post-men, errand-boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas-box.”
Now the mist of the past begins to clear. Although the link between the “Christmas box” and Boxing Day has been mostly broken in modern times, the history of the Christmas box goes back a long way. The OED, in 1889, described it as originally “a box, usually of earthenware, in which contributions of money were collected at Christmas, by apprentices etc.; the box being broken when full, and the contents shared.” The entry goes on to explain that the term had also come to mean
“A present or gratuity given at Christmas : in Great Britain, usually confined to gratuities given to those who are supposed to have a vague claim upon the donor for services rendered to him as one of the general public by whom they are employed and paid, or as a customer of their legal employer; the undefined theory being that as they have done offices for this person, for which he has not directly paid them, some direct acknowledgement is becoming at Christmas.
Thus, these gratuities are from householders by letter-carriers, policemen, lamp-lighters, scavengers, butchers’ and bakers’ boys, tradesmen’s carmen, etc., and from tradesmen by the servants of households that deal with them, etc.”
These “Christmas boxes” were often known simply as “boxes” and references to them can be found at least as far back as the early 17th century. In 1611, Randle Cotgrave defined pillemaille in his French-English dictionary as “such a box as our London Prentices beg withall before Christmas.” On the 19th of December 1663, the celebrated London diarist Samuel Pepys writes that he went “by coach to my shoemaker’s and paid all there, and gave something to the boys’ box against Christmas.” On the 28th of December 1668, he writes that he has been “Called up by drums and trumpets; these things and boxes having cost me much money this Christmas.”
We begin to see a pattern here, as the mentions we find of these Christmas boxes, and later, Boxing Day itself, are frequently in the form of a grumble. In 1710, for example, essayist Jonathan Swift complained “By the Lord Harry, I shall be undone here with Christmas boxes. The rogues of the coffee-house have raised their tax, every one giving a crown, and I gave mine for shame, besides a great many half-crowns to great men’s porters”. In 1712, Richard Steele wrote in The Spectator of the “beadles & officers [who] have the impudence at Christmas to ask for their box.”
So much for early references to Christmas Boxes – what of Boxing Day itself? The first mention recorded by the current OED is from January 1743, in an entry from the Proceedings of the Old Bailey (England’s chief criminal court) which states simply “It was the day after Boxing Day.” In 1747, we find a notice placed in the General Advertiser on the 25th of December advising readers that “This day is Publish’d..Chrismass Gambols, representing the Humours of Christmas and Boxing Day.”
This establishes the earliest known uses of the name but doesn’t tell us much else. However, an 1824 article by Thomas Forster published in The Perennial Calendar and Companion to the Almanack gives us some more detail.
“The custom of annual donations at Christmas and on New Year’s Day is very ancient, being copied by the Christians from the Polytheists of Rome… These presents, nowadays, are more commonly made on the morrow of Christmas. From this circumstance the festival of St. Stephen has got the nickname of Christmas Boxing Day, and by corruption Boxing Day.
In London, and in many other parts of Europe, large families and establishments keep regular lists of tradesmen’s servants, apprentices, and other persons, who come about making a sort of annual claim on them for a Christmas Box on this day. The practice, however, is declining; and in some places is now confined to children. For Parish Boys, and children at School, bring about their samples of writing, and ask for money; and the Bellman, the Watchman, the Waits, and the Church Band, still repeat their wonted annual calls on the hospitable feelings with which a smoking Christmas board of Turkey, plum pudding, and minced pies, inspires the pious head of an old fashioned family mansion.”
In 1825, William Hone in his “Every-day Book” quotes “a writer, in 1731, [who] describes Boxing-day at that time from his own experience.”
“By that time I was up, my servants could do nothing but run to the door. Inquiring the meaning, I was answered, the people were come for the Christmas-box: this was logic to me; but I found at last, that, because I had laid out a great deal of ready-money with my brewer, baker, and other tradesmen, they kindly thought it my duty to present their servants with some money for the favour of having their goods. This provoked me a little; but being told it was ‘the custom,’ I complied. These were followed by the watch, beadles, dustmen, and an innumerable tribe; but what vexed me the most was the clerk, who has an extraordinary place, and makes as good an appearance as most tradesmen in the parish; to see him come a boxing, alias begging, I thought was intolerable: however, I found it was ‘the custom’ too, so I gave him half-a-crown.”
We should take with a pinch of salt Hone’s assertion that the above is penned by an anonymous “writer in 1731.” It is more likely that this account was intended as, and was expected to be received as, a satirical view of those of his own time who “come a boxing, alias begging.”
A notably similar take can be found in an article titled “Boxing Day” published the following year (1826), in The Portfolio of Entertaining and Instructive Varieties in History, Science, Literature, the Fine Arts, etc. etc. Vol. VI.
“At length the long anticipated and wished for day arrives; all classes, from the merchants’ clerk down to the parish Geoffrey Muffincap, are on the tip-toe of expectation. Many and various are the ways of soliciting a Christmas gift. The clerk, with respectful demeanour and simpering face, pays his principal the compliments of the season, and the hint is taken; the shopman solicits a holiday, in full expectation of the usual gift accompanying the consent; the beadle, dustmen, watchmen, milkmen, pot-boys &c all ask in plain terms for a Christmas-box and will not easily take a refusal … The money obtained in this way is generally expended the same evening at some of the theatres.
This, like many other of our ancient customs, is much abused, and is made the vehicle for much annoyance; yet at the same time so much has been done towards depriving the lower classes of their amusements, that we cannot wonder at their making the most of those that remain.”
In modern-day Britain, the dustman and the paperboy still hope for their Christmas tip, the office worker his Christmas bonus, even if they don’t go “a boxing” on the 26th of December. Yet Boxing Day continues to offer the lower classes amusement in the form of a day off work to enjoy sporting events, late hours at pubs, Boxing Day telly and, increasingly, holiday sales at retail stores.