From The Book of Christmas: Descriptive of the Customs, Ceremonies, Traditions ... By Thomas Kibble Hervey (1845)
ST. STEPHEN'S DAY - 26TH DECEMBER
This day—which, in our calendar, is still dedicated to the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen (for John the Baptist perished in the same cause, before the consummation of the old law, and the full introduction of the Christian dispensation),—is more popularly known by the title of Boxing-day; and its importance, amongst the Christmas festivities, is derived from the practice whence that title comes.
We have already mentioned that the custom of bestowing gifts, at seasons of joyous commemoration, has been a form of thankfulness at most periods ;—and that it may have been directly borrowed, by the Christian worshippers, from the Polytheists of Rome, along with those other modes of celebration which descended to the Christmas festival, from that source,—introduced, however, amongst our own observances, under scripture sanctions, drawn both from the Old and New Testaments. The particular form of that practice, whose donations are known by the title of Christmas-boxes (and which appear to differ from New-year's gifts in this,—that the former, passing from the rich to the poor, and from the master to his dependants, are not reciprocal in their distribution,—whereas the latter are those gifts, for the mutual expression of good-will and congratulation, which are exchanged between friends and acquaintances), was, perhaps, originally one of the observances of Christmas-day, and made a portion of its charities. The multiplied business of that festival, however, probably caused it to be postponed till the day following,—and thereby placed the Christmas-boxes under the patronage of St. Stephen. The title itself has been derived, by some, from thebox which was kept on board of every vessel that sailed upon a distant voyage, for the reception of donations to the priest; who, in return, was expected to offer masses for the safety of the expedition, to the particular saint having charge of the ship—and, above all, of the box. This box was not to be opened till the return of the vessel; and we can conceive that, in cases where the mariners had had a perilous time of it, this casket would be found to enclose a tolerable offering. Probably the state of the box might be as good an evidence as the log-book, of the character of the voyage which had been achieved. The mass was, at that time, called Christmass;—and the boxes kept to pay for it were, of course, called Christmass-boxes. The poor, amongst those who had an interest in the fate of these ships,—or of those who sailed in them,—were in the habit of begging money from the rich, that they might contribute to the mass boxes; and hence the title which has descended to our day:—giving to the anniversary of St. Stephen's martyrdom the title of Christmas-boxing day— and, by corruption, its present popular one of Boxing-day.
A relic of these ancient boxes yet exists, in the earthen or wooden box, with a slit in it, which still bears the same name; and is carried, by servants and children, for the purpose of gathering money, at this season—being broken only when the period of collection is supposed to be over. Most of our readers know that it was the practice, not many years ago (and in some places is so still), for families to keep lists of the servants of tradesmen and others, who were considered to have a claim upon them for a Christmas-box at this time. The practice,—besides opening a door to great extortion,—is one, in every way, of considerable annoyance,—and is on the decline. There is, however,—as they who are exposed to it know,—some danger in setting it at defiance, where it is yet in force. One of the most amusing circumstances, arising out of this determination to evade the annoyances of Boxing-day, is related by Sandys. A person in trade had imprudently given directions that he should be denied, on this day, to all applicants for money; and amongst those who presented themselves at his door, on this errand, was, unfortunately, a rather importunate creditor. In the height of his indignation, at being somewhat uncourteously repulsed, he immediately consulted his lawyer; and, having done that, we need scarcely relate the catastrophe. It follows, as a matter of course. A docket was struck against the unsuspecting victim of Christmas-boxophobia.
Boxing-day, however, is still a great day, in London. Upon this anniversary, every street resounds with the clang of hall-door knockers. Rap follows rap, in rapid succession,—the harsh and discordant tones of iron mingling with those of rich and sonorous brass, and giving a degenerate imitation of the brazen clangor of the trumpet which formed the summons to the gate, in days of old,—and which, together with the martial music of the drum, appears to have been adopted, at a later period, by the Christmasboxers, on St. Stephen's-day. Pepys, in his diary (1668), records his having been "called up by drums and trumpets;—these things and boxes," he adds, "have cost me much money, this Christmas, and will do more." Which passage seems to have been in the memory of our facetious publisher, when he made the following entry in his journal of last year,—from whence we have taken the liberty of transcribing it.—" Called out," says Spooner (1834), "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."
There is an amusing account, given by a writer of the querulous class, of a boxing-day, in London, a century ago. "By the time I was up," says he, "my servants could do nothing but run to the door. Inquiring the meaning, I was answered, the people were come for their 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 favor 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 a-begging, I thought was intolerable: however I found it was 'the cus.torn too,' so I gave him half-a-crown; as I was likewise obliged to do the bellman, for breaking my rest for many nights together."
The manner in which the beadle approaches his "good masters and mistresses," for a Christmas-box,—particularly in the villages near the British metropolis,—is, as we have before said, by the presentation of a copy of printed verses, ornamented with wood engravings. These broadsides are usually termed "Bellman's verses;" and we quite agree with Mr. Leigh Hunt in his opinion, that "good bellman's verses will not do at all. There have been," he remarks, "some such things of late ' most tolerable and not to be endured.' We have seen them witty,—which is a great mistake. Warton and Cowper unthinkingly set the way." "The very absurdity of the bellman's verses is only pleasant, nay, only bearable, when we suppose them written by some actual doggrel-poet, in good faith. Mere mediocrity hardly allows us to give our Christmas-box, or to believe it now-a-days in earnest; and the smartness of your cleverest worldly-wise men is felt to be wholly out of place. 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."
Upon the bellman's verses which were last year circulated by the beadles of Putney, Chiswick, and other parishes on the west side of London, it was recorded, that they were "first printed in the year 1735;"—and our curiosity induced us to inquire of the printer the number annually consumed. "We used, sir," said he, "not many years ago, to print ten thousand copies, and even more; but now I suppose we don't print above three thousand." Whether the trade of this particular dealer in bellman's verses has passed into other hands,—or whether the encouragement given to the circulation of these broadsides has declined,—the statement of an individual will not of course enable us to determine. But we are inclined to think that,—like other old Christmas customs, —the popularity of bellman's verses is passing away; and that, before many years have elapsed, penny magazines and unstamped newspapers will have completely superseded these relics of the rude, but sincere, piety of our ancestors.