A Regency Era Christmas time tradition.
On the 26th December, the Boxing Day holiday, servants, apprentices, and the poor were presented with gifts. The origin of the holiday is unknown, but was probably first observed in the Middle Ages and the name may come from the opening of alms boxes that had been placed in churches over the holidays for distribution to the poor.
It may also be because servants opened their gift boxes on the day after Christmas because on Christmas Day they were busy cooking and serving a large festive meal for their employers. December 26th is also the feast day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr and patron saint of horses, so Boxing Day has now become associated with horse racing and sports.
Some villages followed the custom of the Hunting of the Wren, where small boys captured a wren, killed it, and then mounted it on a pole and carry to every house in the village while singing a song. Money collected was used for a village dance.
‘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, at the time the public religion was changed. These presents, now-a-days, 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 tradesman’s servants, apprentices, and other persons, who come about making a sort of annual claim on them for a Christmas box on this day.’
‘On the day after Christmas, tradespeople are visited by persons in the employment of their customers for a “Christmas-box,” and every man and boy who thinks he is qualified to ask, solicits from those on whom he calculates as likely to bestow.
A writer, in 1731, 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 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 ‘ he 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; as I was likewise obliged to do to the bellman, for breaking my rest for many nights together.’
Boxing Day is one of the many customs and traditions associated with Christmas that is featured in History of Christmases Past (Book 1 History Events) by Suzi Love.