CHRISTMAS TIMES—BOXING DAY.
“You arn’t the rigglar [= regular] dustman, blow ye! For a farden [= farthing], I’d blow your precious conk [= nose]!”
“I’m as good a dustman as you any day in the veek, my tulip!”
from The Observer (London) – 20th July 1828
Boxing Day is a public holiday celebrated on the first day (strictly, the first weekday) after Christmas Day.
A Christmas-box was a box, usually of earthenware, in which contributions of money were collected at Christmas, in particular by apprentices from their masters’ customers. When the box was full, it was broken and its contents shared.
In A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), Randle Cotgrave thus translated the French word tirelire, which now means moneybox:
A Christmas box; a box hauing a cleft on the lid, or in the side, for money to enter it; vsed in France by begging Fryers, and here by Butlers, and Prentices, &c.
Cotgrave mentioned butlers because gamesters used to put part of their winnings in what was called the butler’s box. In Argalus and Parthenia (1629), the English poet Francis Quarles (1592-1644) wrote:
When skilfull Gamesters play,
The Christmas box gaines often more then [= than] they.
The word Christmas-box came to be applied to a present or gratuity given at Christmas. These gratuities were traditionally asked from householders by letter-carriers, policemen, lamp-lighters, scavengers, butchers’ and bakers’ boys, tradesmen’s car-men, etc., and from tradesmen by the servants of households that dealt with them. As they had done offices for these persons, for which they had not been directly paid, they were expecting some direct acknowledgement at Christmas.
These presents and gratuities were thus practically identical with the Christmas-box collected by apprentices from their masters’ customers, except that the name was given to the individual donation. It was therefore often equivalent to Christmas present. For example, on 28th December 1668, the English naval administrator Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) wrote in his diary:
Up, called up by drums and trumpets; these things and boxes having cost me much money this Christmas already, and will do more.
The verb to box was colloquially used to mean to give a Christmas-box, whence the term Boxing Day, which was originally the first weekday after Christmas Day, on which postmen, errand-boys and servants of various kinds expected to receive a Christmas-box.
The earliest instances of the word Boxing Day that I have found date from 1822; for example, the following is from A Few Thoughts on Christmas, published in The Sheffield Independent (Yorkshire) of 28th December 1822:
Then comes the great, the eventful day to the poorer classes, called Boxing Day, which is now divested of much of that real kindness and neighbourly feeling, which used to attend the gifts called Christmas-boxes; they are now too often given merely to get rid of a troublesome beggar, for seldom are they given with any other feeling; and, on the other hand, it but too frequently happens that the money is spent by those who receive it in low extravagance and debauchery.
In Memoirs of Charles Mathews¹, Comedian, which she published in 1839, Mrs Mathews subjoined the following contemporary critical notice of an entertainment given by her husband in 1833:
We are then presented with a ludicrous account of the sufferings of a Frenchman, Monsieur Ventriloque, in his attempt to comprehend the idioms of the English language. He orders dinner, and it is served in a box in the coffee-room. He wishes, after having proved to the custom-house officer that he carries no smuggles, to pack all his little trifles in a sac, and he is recommended to buy a box. Then he hears a gentleman near him asking for the pepper-box. Box again! He goes to the theatre, and is asked if he choose to go to de box. He always answers “Oh! yes,” that he might not appear to be ignorant. He wishes to send a letter to his friends in France, and is desired to put it in the letter-box. When he gets on the coach for London, he is offered, for an additional shilling, a seat on the box; and, when they are about to start, the driver asks for his box-coat. They drive through the country with such speed that he fears they will be reversed; and, when another coach attempts to pass them, the coachman exclaims, “if you think to go that on me, my lad, you’ll have got into the wrong box.” Despairing of being able to understand this word, he fears to ask a question; but, at last, seeing a pretty house on the side of the road, he inquires to whom it belongs? and hears it is Lord Killfox’s shooting-box. A man with mustachios comes to the coach, and demands if his harp is safe; and, on asking his name, he learns with dismay that it is Bochsa². Seeing a beautiful country, he is told it is Boxhill. Trees cut like peacocks he learns also are box. A crowd assembled are watching a boxing match; and, finally, and to the completion of his dismay, he arrives in London on boxing-day; and determines in the height of his misery, to leave a country in which the language is so unintelligible, on the very next morning.
(¹ the English actor and theatre manager Charles Mathews (1776-1835)
(² the harpist and composer Robert Nicolas Charles Bochsa (1789-1856))
In like manner, the English artist, caricaturist and illustrator George Cruikshank (1792-1878) punned on various meanings of the word box in Boxing Day, published in The Comic Almanack, for 1836: An Ephemeris in Jest and Earnest (London). In particular, two men, one of them wearing a box-coat, are watching a boxing match; several men are handling heavy boxes; a small boy is carrying a hatbox; posters advertise “Coaches Daily to Boxhill, Boxley, Boxsted, Boxwell, Boxworth, Boxgrove, Boxford and Box”, “The art of Boxing—Taught by Bill Boxhead”, “Cheap Box Coates”, “To be Sold a snug Country Box called Boxwood Lodge”, “Mʳ Bochsa’s Concert”:
Boxing Day itself doesn’t exist in France but the same custom does: at the end of the year, presents (now generally money) are given to the servants and to some persons such as the concierge (resident caretaker of a block of flats) and the postman.
The plural noun étrennes, which designates this equivalent of the English Christmas box, is from Latin strena, literally a sign, prognostic, omen, which came to mean a new-year’s present given for the sake of the omen.
The singular étrenne means the first use made of something. It is now obsolete, but its derivative, the verb étrenner, is not: it means to use (an object) or wear (a garment) for the first time.