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What is Boxing Day?

In the UK and some other parts of the English-speaking world December 26th is known as Boxing Day, while in other places it is also called St. Stephen’s Day. But what’s the history behind it? I turned to the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore to find out. – Kirsty

The day after Christmas Day, or ‘Boxing Day’ to most of us, St Stephen’s Day is nowadays subsumed into the general two-day Christmas period and has little character of its own. Boxing Day derives its name from a previous custom on the day of asking and giving ‘Christmas boxes’, i.e. presents, either money or in kind. The ‘box’ was originally the receptacle into which the money was placed, but it gradually came to refer to the gift itself. There are strong historical traditions of gift-giving on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, and at different periods each of these days was considered the proper time for presents to family and friends, but the Boxing Day gifts were different again. On this day, there was a definite feeling of a gratuity for services rendered, rather than of a gift between equals. The earliest references, in the 1620s to 1640s refer to apprentices and servants as recipients of money gifts from their employers, and later in the same century there are references to money being given to tradespeople who had served one well during the year, staff at clubs, and so on. But as the custom spread, trades-people themselves also felt obliged to give Christmas boxes:

It is customary for employees to call upon those who employed their masters and ask for money. Grocers used to make their customers a present of plums for their Christmas puddings and bakers invariably gave a plum cake at this time. The custom extends to certain subordinate officials, e.g, the sexton, clerk, ringers and watchmen. (Baker, 1854: pp.73)

Already in the 18th century people were complaining loudly of the amount they were expected to pay out to all and sundry—Hutton quotes Jonathan Swift and Joseph Fielding on the subject—and the satirical magazine Punch included regular pieces against the custom throughout the mid-19th century, with varying proportions of good humour and bitter complaint, as for example: ‘How much longer, we ask with indignant sorrow, is the humbug of Boxing-day to be kept up for the sake of draining the pockets of struggling tradesmen …’ (Punch (1848), 271).

Clearly, there was a complex network of social obligations regarding who gave Christmas boxes to whom, and further details are given by Hannah Cullwick, working as a maidservant in London, in her diary for 1863, when she received money from the tradesmen who dealt with her ‘Missis’ (Liz Stanley (ed.), The Diaries of Hannah Cullwick: Victorian Maidservant (1984), 145, 261).

There are a number of references to parties of villagers descending on the local woods on Christmas Day or St Stephen’s Day in an orgy of ‘hunting’ any live animal or bird they could find. In some cases this was under the guise of hunting the wren’ or squirrel hunting customs, but it was also widely believed, especially in the northern countries, that the game laws did not apply on these days.

It was also generally the custom to bleed horses on this day, often after riding them hard first, as it was believed that it would do them good for the coming year (see Brand for 16th- to 18th-century references). One or two other isolated customs are recorded. An ancient custom existed in the parish of Drayton Beauchamp, Buckinghamshire, called ‘Stephening’, which probably originated in a charity dole. Inhabitants would visit the Rectory and assert their right to eat as much bread and cheese and drink as much ale as they chose. The rector managed to discontinue the custom in 1808 (Transactions of the Buckinghamshire Archaeological Soc. 1 (1858), 577–8). Another curious custom existed at Brighton of bowling or throwing oranges along the high roads on this day. The one whose orange is hit by that of another forfeits it to the successful hitter (Sussex Archaeological Collections 33 (1883), 256).

The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore by Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud is available via Oxford Reference Online.

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