Richard Newton, Christmass Boxes, Published by William Holland, 25th December 1795. Four panels which feature a series of middle class characters responding warmly to polite requests for a ‘Christmas box’.

Boxing Day in Hanoverian England was the day on which servants, itinerant tradesmen, parish employees and those working in the more humble of occupations, traditionally went door-to-door in expectation of receiving a small tip, or ‘Christmas box’, from the residents of their neighbourhood.

The exact origins of Boxing Day are unclear but we do know that the holiday dates back at least as far as the middle of the seventeenth-century, having been mentioned in the diaries of Samuel Peypes, and may even go as far back as the middle ages. The practice of going ‘boxing’ on the day after Christmas Day gradually fell into abeyance during the early nineteenth-century, as rapid population growth increasingly undermined the social intimacy of urban life and attitudes towards the poor began to harden.

The radical satirist William Hone published the following account, said to have been written in 1731, in his Every Day Book for the year 1825. The original date of publication is suspect and it is likely that the piece was written by one of Hone’s contemporaries as a means of launching a thinly veiled attack on a the Boxing Day tradition. The narrator’s view of the poor as feckless, dissolute, authors of their own misfortune, certainly reflects opinions which were becoming increasingly common in the late Hanoverian period and which would eventually find political expression in the infamous Poor Laws of 1834.

Boxing-day extortioners

…By the 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… because I had laid out a great deal of money with my brewer, baker and other tradesmen, they kindly thought it my duty to present their servants with some money for the favour of having their goods.

This provoked me a little, but having been told it was ‘the custom’, I complied. These were followed by the watch, beadle, dustmen and an innumerable tribe; but what vexed me most was the clerk [of the parish], 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. 

Having talked this matter over with a friend, he promised to carry me where I might see the good effects of this giving box-money. In the evening, away we went to a neighbouring alehouse, where abundance pf these gentry were assembled round a stately piece of roast and a large plum-pudding. When the drink and brandy began to work they fell to reckoning of their several gains that day. One [householder] was called a stingy dog for giving but sixpence; another called an extravagant fool for giving half-a-crown. 

Some of them were got to cards by themselves, which soon produced a quarrel and broken heads. In the interim came in some of their wives, who roundly abused the people for having given them money, adding that instead of doing good it ruined their families and set them on the road of drinking and gaming. 

This view of the poor is one which Hone himself stoutly rejected, publishing his own views on the need for charity at this time of year above all others, he chastised

… the unfeeling and mercenary [who] urge false pretenses… with the vain hope of concealing their private reasons for refusing public charity. And now the upright and kindhearted welcome the annual call and dispense bountifully. Their prosperity is a blessing. Each scattereth and yet increaseth. Their pillows are pillows of peace.