#MyrtleMondays: Boxing Day

No discussion of Victorian Christmas would be complete without mention of the day after Christmas Day, known in Britain and its colonies as Boxing Day. If you have English or Australian friends or watch a lot of PBS, you’ve no doubt heard of this quintessential British observance, but what exactly is it? And what does it have to do with boxing?

Illustrator George Cruikshank shared your confusion. Click here to view a zoomable image and read the signs posted in this delightful celebration of all things… boxy. See how many boxes you can find! (The Comic Almanack, 1830s)

By the 1830s, when references to Boxing Day first appeared in print (in sources such as Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers and the Oxford English Dictionary) the observance was already fixed in British tradition. You’ll be relieved to know that the British Empire did not have a holiday devoted to the sport of pugilism (despite its popularity). The box in Boxing Day refers to different sorts of boxes altogether.

Janos Thorma, Woman Giving Alms

We think of Christmas tradition as inextricably connected with charitable giving, and Boxing Day evolved in part from the practice of donating to “alms boxes,” or church-sponsored collections for the poor.

Thomas Kibble Hervey’s 1836 Book of Christmas features this illustration of a wealthy landowner giving to needy neighbors.

And December 26th’s connection to charity runs even deeper. It is also the Feast of St. Stephen, immortalized in the 19th century carol “Good King Wenceslas,” in which the Polish king (himself to be sainted for his goodly deeds) brings food and fuel to the poor on a bitterly cold winter’s night.

1895 illustration of the inciting incident of the carol: a poor farmer gathering wood, the sight of which moved his king to an act of miraculous generosity

The second part of Boxing Day’s origins comes from the custom of “Christmas boxes,” or bonuses given to tradesmen and staff members at the holidays. Servants expected to work on Christmas Day might get December 26th off, along with a little something from the boss to make the season merry.

Tradesmen from musicians to newsboys to chimney sweeps line up to collect their Christmas Boxes in this detail from “Boxing Day” in The Book of Christmas.

Some contemporaries expressed concern that the custom of Christmas Boxes was getting out of hand. In the 1850s, London’s Postmaster General had to send a warning to his staff against soliciting for Christmas boxes—causing a furious backlash among postal workers across the country. See more at the Postal Museum.

Many members of the working class relied on their Christmas Boxes for a substantial portion of their annual income. The English Illustrated Magazine, 1892

The custom of giving a little something to tradespeople and business associates has never died out, of course, but nowadays Boxing Day is considered a shopping holiday, somewhat akin to Black Friday in the US.

And if you just happen to have some extra Christmas money burning a hole in your pocket, why not drop in on your favorite bookseller for a copy of Cold-Blooded Myrtle?

The holiday season may be waning, but winter is just setting in, making it the perfect time to cozy up with a good mystery!