Gifts: Boxing Day Gifts
Boxing Day, or St. Stephen’s Day, provided another occasion for midwinter gift giving in England. Many writers believe that the English custom called “boxing” can be traced back to the Middle Ages. In that era parish priests customarily opened up the church alms-box on December 26, St. Stephen’s Day. Then they distributed the coins it contained to the needy. This practice gave rise to the use of the term “box” to denote a small gift of money or a gratuity.
By the early seventeenth century the Church’s St. Stephen’s Day tradition had inspired working people to adopt the custom of saving whatever tips they had been given throughout the year in clay boxes which they broke open on December 26. By the late seventeenth century they began to solicit tips from all those who had enjoyed their services during the year. They collected the last of these “boxes” on December 26, after which they broke open these containers and used the money to buy Christmas treats. By the nineteenth century the custom of boxing had so colored the character of the day that many people began to refer to December 26 as Boxing Day rather than St. Stephen’s Day. Like medieval New Year’s gifts, Christmas boxes took place in the context of unequal social relationships. Rather than express personal affection, Christmas boxes permitted the well-to-do to express appreciation for services rendered to them. The custom also presented working people with an opportunity to collect a little extra cash around the holidays.