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Friday, 26 December 2014

Boxing Day! The customs and traditions of St. Stephen's Day

Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days December 26th 1864, details the traditions of St. Stephen's Day.

St. Stephen
St. Stephen's Day

To St. Stephen, the Proto-martyr, as he is generally styled, the honour has been accorded by the church of being placed in her calendar immediately after Christmas-day, in recognition of his having been the first to seal with his blood the testimony of fidelity to his Lord and Master. The year in which he was stoned to death, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, is supposed to have been 33 A.D. The festival commemorative of him has been retained in the Anglican calendar.

A curious superstition was formerly prevalent regarding St. Stephen's Day—that horses should then, after being first well galloped, be copiously let blood, to insure them against disease in the course of the following year. In Barnaby Googe's translation of Naogeorgus, the following lines occur relative to this popular notion:

Then followeth Saint Stephen's Day, whereon doth every man
His horses jaunt and course abrode, as swiftly as he can,
Until they doe extremely sweate, and then they let them blood,
For this being done upon this day, they say doth do them good,
And keepes them from all maladies and sicknesse through the yeare,
As if that Steven any time tooke charge of horses heare.'

The origin of this practice is difficult to be accounted for, but it appears to be very ancient, and Douce supposes that it was introduced into this country by the Danes. In one of the manuscripts of that interesting chronicler, John Aubrey, who lived in the latter half of the seventeenth century, occurs the following record: On St. Stephen's Day, the farrier came constantly and blouded all our cart-horses.' Very possibly convenience and expediency combined on the occasion with superstition, for in Tusser Redivivus, a work published in the middle of the last century, we find this statement: 'About Christmas is a very proper time to bleed horses in, for then they are commonly at house, then spring comes on, the sun being now coming back from the winter-solstice, and there are three or four days of rest, and if it be upon St. Stephen's Day it is not the worse, seeing there are with it three days of rest, or at least two.'

In the parish of Drayton Beauchamp, Bucks, there existed long an ancient custom, called Stephening, from the day on which it took place. On St. Stephen's Day, all the inhabitants used to pay a visit to the rectory, and practically assert their right to partake of as much bread and cheese and ale as they chose at the rector's expense. On one of these occasions, according to local tradition, the then rector, being a penurious old bachelor, determined to put a stop, if possible, to this rather expensive and unceremonious visit from his parishioners. Accordingly, when St. Stephen's Day arrived, he ordered his housekeeper not to open the window-shutters, or unlock the doors of the house, and to remain perfectly silent and motionless whenever any person was heard approaching. At the usual time the parishioners began to cluster about the house. They knocked first at one door, then at the other, then tried to open them, and on finding them fastened, they called aloud for admittance. No voice replied. No movement was heard within. 'Surely the rector and his house-keeper must both be dead!' exclaimed several voices at once, and a general awe pervaded the whole group. Eyes were then applied to the key-holes, and to every crevice in the window-shutters, when the rector was seen beckoning his old terrified housekeeper to sit still and silent. A simultaneous shout convinced him that his design was under-stood. Still he consoled himself with the hope that his larder and his cellar were secure, as the house could not be entered. But his hope was speedily dissipated. Ladders were reared against the roof, tiles were hastily thrown off, half-a-dozen sturdy young men entered, rushed down the stairs, and threw open both the outer-doors. In a trice, a hundred or more unwelcome visitors rushed into the house, and began unceremoniously to help themselves to such fare as the larder and cellar afforded; for no special stores having been provided for the occasion, there was not half enough bread and cheese for such a multitude. To the rector and his housekeeper, that festival was converted into the most rigid fast-day they had ever observed.

After this signal triumph, the parishioners of Drayton regularly exercised their 'privilege of Stephening' till the incumbency of the Rev. Basil Wood, who was presented to the living in 1808. Finding that the custom gave rise to much rioting and drunkenness, he discontinued it, and distributed instead an annual sum of money in proportion to the number of claimants. But as the population of the parish greatly increased, and as he did not consider himself bound to continue the practice, he was induced, about the year 1827, to withhold his annual payments; and so the custom became finally abolished. For some years, however, after its discontinuance, the people used to go to the rectory for the accustomed bounty, but were always refused.

In the year 1834, the commissioners appointed to inquire concerning charities, made an investigation into this custom, and several of the inhabitants of Drayton gave evidence on the occasion, but nothing was elicited to shew its origin or duration, nor was any legal proof advanced skewing that the rector was bound to comply with such a demand.* Many of the present inhabitants of the parish remember the custom, and some of them have heard their parents say, that it had been observed:

'As long as the sun had shone,
And the waters had run.'

In London and other places, St. Stephen's Day, or the 26th of December, is familiarly known as Boxing-day, from its being the occasion on which those annual guerdons known as Christmas-boxes are solicited and collected. For a notice of them, the reader is referred to the ensuing article.


The institution of Christmas-boxes is evidently akin to that of New-year's gifts, and, like it, has descended to us from the times of the ancient Romans, who, at the season of the Saturnalia, practiced universally the custom of giving and receiving presents. The fathers of the church denounced, on the ground of its pagan origin, the observance of such a usage by the Christians; but their anathemas had little practical effect, and in process of time, the custom of Christmas-boxes and New-year's gifts, like others adopted from the heathen, attained the position of a universally recognised institution. The church herself has even got the credit of originating the practice of Christmas-boxes, as will appear from the following curious extract from The Athenian Oracle of John Dunton; a sort of primitive Notes and Queries, as it is styled by a contributor to the periodical of that name.

Q. From whence comes the custom of gathering of Christmas-box money? And how long since?

A. It is as ancient as the word mass, which the Romish priests invented from the Latin word mitto, to send, by putting the people in mind to send gifts, offerings, oblations; to have masses said for everything almost, that no ship goes out to the Indies, but the priests have a box in that ship, under the protection of some saint. And for masses, as they cant, to be said for them to that saint, &c., the poor people must put in something into the priest's box, which is not to be opened till the ship return. Thus the mass at that time was Christ's-mass, and the box Christ's-mass-box, or money gathered against that time, that masses might be made by the priests to the saints, to forgive the people the debaucheries of that time; and from this, servants had liberty to get box-money, because they might be enabled to pay the priest for masses—because, No penny, no paternoster—for though the rich pay ten times more than they can expect, yet a priest will not say a mass or anything to the poor for nothing; so charitable they generally are.'

The charity thus ironically ascribed by Dunton to the Roman Catholic clergy, can scarcely, so far as the above extract is concerned, be warrantably claimed by the whimsical author himself. His statement regarding the origin of the custom under notice may be regarded as an ingenious conjecture, but cannot be deemed a satisfactory explanation of the question. As we have already seen, a much greater antiquity and diversity of origin must be asserted.

This custom of Christmas-boxes, or the bestowing of certain expected gratuities at the Christmas season, was formerly, and even yet to a certain extent continues to be, a great nuisance. The journeymen and apprentices of trades-people were wont to levy regular contributions from their masters' customers, who, in addition, were mulcted by the trades-people in the form of augmented charges in the bills, to recompense the latter for gratuities expected from them by the customers' servants. This most objectionable usage is now greatly diminished, but certainly cannot yet be said to be extinct. Christmas-boxes are still regularly expected by the postman, the lamplighter, the dustman, and generally by all those functionaries who render services to the public at large, without receiving payment therefore from any particular individual. There is also a very general custom at the Christmas season, of masters presenting their clerks, apprentices, and other employees, with little gifts, either in money or kind.

St. Stephen's Day, or the 26th of December, being the customary day for the claimants of Christmas-boxes going their rounds, it has received popularly the designation of Boxing-day. In the evening, the new Christmas pantomime for the season is generally produced for the first time; and as the pockets of the working-classes, from the causes which we have above stated, have commonly received an extra supply of funds, the theatres are almost universally crowded to the ceiling on Boxing-night; whilst the 'gods,' or upper gallery, exercise even more than their usual authority. Those interested in theatrical matters await with consider-able eagerness the arrival, on the following morning, of the daily papers, which have on this occasion a large space devoted to a chronicle of the pantomimes and spectacles produced at the various London theatres on the previous evening.

In conclusion, we must not be too hard on the system of Christmas-boxes or handsets, as they are termed in Scotland, where, however, they are scarcely ever claimed till after the commencement of the New Year. That many abuses did and still do cling to them, we readily admit; but there is also intermingled with them a spirit of kindliness and benevolence, which it would be very undesirable to extirpate. It seems almost instinctive for the generous side of human nature to bestow some reward for civility and attention, and an additional incentive to such liberality is not infrequently furnished by the belief that its recipient is but inadequately remunerated otherwise for the duties which he performs. Thousands, too, of the commonalty look eagerly forward to the forth-coming guerdon on Boxing-day, as a means of procuring some little unwonted treat or relaxation, either in the way of sight-seeing, or some other mode of enjoyment. Who would desire to abridge the happiness of so many? 


Pantomimic acting had its place in the ancient drama, but the grotesque performances associated with our English Christmas, are peculiar to this country. Cibber says that they originated in an attempt to make stage-dancing something more than motion without meaning. In the early part of the last century, a ballet was produced at Drury Lane, called the Loves of Mars and Venus, wherein the passions were so happily expressed, and the whole story so intelligibly told by a mute narration of gesture only, that even thinking spectators allowed it both a pleasing and rational entertainment. From this sprung forth that succession of monstrous medleys that have so long infested the stage, and which arise upon one another alternately at both houses, outlying in expense, like contending bribes at both sides at an election, to secure a majority of the multitude.'

Cibber's managerial rival, Rich, found himself unable, with the Lincoln's-Inn-Fields' company, to compete with Drury Lane in the legitimate drama, and struck out a path of his own, by the invention of the comic pantomime. That he was indebted to Italy for the idea, is evident from an advertisement in the Daily Courant, for the 26th December 1717, in which his Harlequin Executed is described as 'A new Italian Mimic Scene (never performed before), between a Scaramouch, a Harlequin, a Country Farmer, his Wife, and others.' This piece is generally called 'the first English pantomime' by theatrical historians; but we find comic masques 'in the high style of Italy,' among the attractions of the patent-houses, as early as 1700. Rich seems to have grafted the scenic and mechanical features of the old masque upon the pantomimic ballet. Davies, in his Dramatic Miscellanies, describes Rich's pantomimes as 'consisting of two parts—one serious, the other comic. By the help of gay scenes, fine habits, grand dances, appropriate music, and other decorations, he exhibited a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses, or some other mythological work. Between the pauses or acts of this serious representation, he interwove a comic fable, consisting chiefly of the courtship of Harlequin and Columbine, with a variety of surprising adventures and tricks, which were produced by the magic wand of Harlequin; such as the sudden transformation of palaces and temples to huts and cottages; of men and women into wheel-barrows and joint-stools; of trees turned to houses; colonnades to beds of tulips; and mechanics' shops into serpents and ostriches.'

Pope complains in The Dunciad, that people of the first quality go twenty and thirty times to see such extravagances as:

'A sable sorcerer rise,
Swift to whose hand a winged volume flies:
All sudden, gorgons hiss and dragons glare,
And ten-horned fiends and giants rush to war.
Hell rises, Heaven descends, and dance on earth,
Gods, imps and monsters, music, rage, and mirth,
A fire, a jig, a battle and a ball,
Till one wide conflagration swallows all.
Thence a new world to Nature's laws unknown,
Breaks out refulgent, with a heaven its own;
Another Cynthia her new journey runs,
And other planets circle other suns.
The forests dance, the rivers upward rise,
Whales sport in woods, and dolphins in the skies;
And last, to give the whole creation grace,
Lo! one vast egg produces human race.'

The success of the new entertainment was wonder-fully lasting. Garrick and Shakespeare could not hold their own against Pantomime. The great actor reproaches his aristocratic patrons because:

'They in the drama find no joys,
But doat on mimicry and toys.
Thus, when a dance is in my bill,
Nobility my boxes fill;
Or send three days before the time,
To crowd a new-made pantomime.'

And The World (1st March 1753) proposes that pantomime shall have the boards entirely to itself. 'People of taste and fashion have already given sufficient proof that they think it the highest entertainment the stage is capable of affording; the most innocent we are sure it is, for where nothing is said and nothing is meant, very little harm can be done. Mr. Garrick, perhaps, may start a few objections to this proposal; but with those universal talents which he so happily possesses, it is not to be doubted but he will, in time, be able to handle the wooden sword with as much dignity and dexterity as his brother Lun.'

The essayist does Rich injustice; the latter's Harlequin was something more than a dexterous performance. Rich was a first-rate pantomimic actor, to whom words were needless. Garrick bears impartial witness to the genius of the exhibitor of the eloquence of motion. In the prologue to a pantomime with a talking-hero, produced after Rich's death, he says:

'Tis wrong,
The wits will say, to give the fool a tongue.
When Lun appeared, with matchless art and whim,
He gave the power of speech to every limb;
Though masked and mute, conveyed his quick intent,
And told in frolic gestures all he meant.'

At this time the role of Harlequin was not considered derogatory to an actor as it is now—Woodward, who established his reputation by playing such characters as Lord Foppington, Marplot, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, was equally popular as the party-coloured hero.

In the hands of Lun's successors, Harlequin sadly degenerated; and when Grimaldi appeared upon the scene, his genius elevated the Clown into the principal personage of the pantomime. The harlequinade still remained the staple of the piece, the opening forming a very insignificant portion. John Kemble himself did not disdain to suggest the plot of a pantomime. Writing to Tom Dibdin, he says:

'The pantomime might open with three Saxon witches lamenting Merlin's power over them, and forming an incantation, by which they create a Harlequin, who is supposed to be able to counter-act Merlin in all his designs against King Arthur. If the Saxons come on in a dreadful storm, as they proceeded in their magical rites, the sky might brighten, and a rainbow sweep across the horizon, which, when the ceremonies are completed, should contract itself from either end, and form the figure of Harlequin in the heavens. The wizards may fetch him down as they will, and the sooner he is set to work the better.' —Dibdin's Reminiscences.

Dibdin himself was a prolific pantomime author; and we cannot give a better idea of what the old-fashioned pantomime was, than by quoting the first scene of his Harlequin in his Element; or Fire, Water, Earth, and Air, performed at Covent Garden Theatre in 1807. The dramatis persona consist of Ignoso, the spirit of Fire; Aquina, the fairy of the Fountain; Aurino, genius of Air; Terrena, spirit of Earth; Harlequin (Mr Bologna, Jr.); Columbine (Miss Adams); Sir Amoroso Sordid, guardian to Columbine (Mr Ridgway); and Gaby Grin, his servant (Mr Grimaldi).


A beautiful garden, with terraces, arcades, fountains, &c. The curtain rises to a soft symphony. Aurino is seen descending on a light cloud; he approaches a fountain in the centre of the garden, and begins the following duet:

Aurino. Aquina! Fountain Fairy!
The genius of the Air
Invites thee here
From springs so clear,
With love to banish care.

AQUINA, rising from fountain.

Aquina. Aurino, airy charmer,
Behold thy nymph appear.
What peril can alarm her,
When thou, my love, art near?

Terrena rises from the earth, and addresses the other two.

Terr. Why rudely trample thus on Mother Earth?
Fairies, ye know this ground 's my right by birth.
These pranks I'll punish: Water shall not rise
Above her level; Air shall keep the skies.

It thunders; IGNOSO descends.

Igno.' Tis burning shame, such quarrels 'mong you three,
Though I warm you, you're always cold to Inc.
The sons of Earth, on every slight disaster,
Call me good servant, but a wicked master.
Of Air and Water, too, the love I doubt,
One blows me up, the other puts me out.
Nay, if you're angry, I'll have my turn too,
And you shall see what mischief I can do !

Ignoso throws the fire from his wand; the flowers all wither, but are revived by the other fairies.

Terr. Fire, why so hot? Your bolts distress not me,
But injure the fair mistress of these bowers;
Whose sordid guardian would her husband be,
For lucre, not for love. Rather than quarrel,
let us use our powers,
And gift with magic aid some active sprite,
To foil the guardian and the girl to right.


Igno. About it quick!
Toss This clod to form shall grow,
Aqui. With dew refreshed
Aur. With vital air
Igno. And warm with magic glow.

HARLEQUIN is produced from a bed of party-coloured flowers; the magic sword is given him, while he is thus addressed:

Terr. This powerful weapon your wants will provide;
Then trip,
Aur. Free as air,
Aqui. And as brisk as the tide.
Igno. Away, while thy efforts we jointly inspire.
Terr. Tread lightly!
Aur. Fly!
Aqui. Run!
Igno. And you'll never hang fire!

IGNOSO sinks. AQUINA strikes the fountains; they begin playing. TERRENA strikes the ground; a bed of roses appears. Harlequin surveys everything, and runs round the stage. Earth sinks in the bed of roses, and Water in the fountain. Air ascends in the car. Columbine enters dancing; is amazed at the sight of Harlequin, who retires from her with equal surprise; they follow each other round the fountain in a sort of pas de deux.' They are surprised by the entrance of Columbine's Guardian, who comes in, preceded by servants in rich liveries. Clown, as his running footman, enters with a lapdog. Old Man takes snuff views himself in a pocket-glass. Clown imitates him, &c. Old Man sees Harlequin and Columbine, and pursues them round the fountains, but the lovers go of, followed by Sir Amonoso and servants.

And so the lovers are pursued by Sir. Amoroso and Clown through sixteen scenes, till the fairies unite them in the Temple of the Elements. The harlequinade—left is full of practical jokes, but contains no hits at the follies of the day throughout it all; the relative positions of Clown and Sir Amoroso, Pantaloon, or the Guardian (as he is styled indifferently), as servant and master, are carefully preserved.

Since Dibdin's time, the pantomime has under-gone a complete change. The dramatic author furnishes only the opening, which has gradually become the longest part of the piece; while the harlequinade—left to the so-called pantomimists to arrange—is nothing but noise. Real pantomime-acting is eschewed altogether; Harlequin and Columbine are mere dancers and posturers; and Clown, if he does not usurp the modern Harlequin's attribute, is but a combination of the acrobat and coarse buffoon. The pantomime of the present day would certainly not be recognized by Rich or owned by Grimaldi.

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