The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Christmas Box

Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 1, pp. 116-17

Hutchinson observes on these gifts to servants and mechanics, for their good services in the labouring part of the year, "The Paganalia of the Romans, instituted by Servius Tullius, were celebrated in the beginning of the year: an altar was erected in each village, where all persons gave money. This was a mode originally devised for gaining the number of inhabitants." Hist. of Northumb. ii., 20. "Denique in nostris Ecclesiis nocte natali Parentes varia munuscula, Crepundia, Cistellas, Vestes Vehicula, Poma, Nuces, &c. liberis suis donant, quibus plerumque Virga additur, ut metu castigationis eo facilius regantur. Dantur hæc munuscula nomine S. Christi, quem per tegulas vel fenestras illabi, vel cum Angelis demos obire fingunt. Mos iste similiter a Saturnalibus Gentilium descendere videtur, in quibus Ethnicos sportulas sive varia Munera ultro citroque misisse, antiquissimus patrum Tertullianus meminit in lib. de Persecut. Hildebrandus, De Diebus Festis 1735. See Du Cange’s "Glossary," v. Natali.

Drechier, in his Treatise "De Larvis," p. 30, quotes the 79th Canon of the General Council held at Constantinople in 690-1, for the apparent origin of this custom: "Quando aliqui post Diem Natalem Christi Dei nostri reperiuntur coquentes similam et se hanc mutuó donantes, prætextu scil. honoris secundinarum impollutæ Virginis Matris, statuimus ut deinceps nihil tale fiat a fidelibus." These cakes, Drechler imagines, were originally given as presents in remembrance of the Virgin, and other aritcles were, in course of time, added or substituted, the original object being kept in view. We are told that the Christmas Box money is derived hence. The Romish priests had masses said for almost every thing: if a ship went out to the Indies, the priests had a box in her, under the protection of some saint: and for masses, as their cant was, to be said for them to that saint, &c. the poor people must put something into the priest’s box, which was not opened till the ship’s return.

The mass at that time was called Christmas: the box called Christmas 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 the liberty to get box money, that they too might be enabled to pay the priest for his masses, knowing well the truth of the proverb : " No Penny, No Pater Noster." — Athenian Oracle, by Dunton, i., 360. In the illustration of the cut to Blaxton’s "English Usurer," 1634, the author speaking of the usurer and swine, says: deficient in giving; like the Christmas earthen boxes of apprentices, apt to take in money, but he restores none till hee be broken like a potters vessell into many shares." And in Mason’s "Handful of Essaies," 1621, signat. c 2, we find a similar thought — "like a swine he never doth good till his death: as an apprentices box of earth, apt he is to take all, but to restore none till hoe be broken." The box was evidently at one time of earthenware. Aubrey, in his "Natural History of Wiltshire," circa 1670, speaking of a pot in which some Roman Denarii were found says: "it resembles in appearance an apprentices earthen Christmas box." "One asked a fellow, what Westminster Hall was like. Marry, quoth the other, it is like a butler’s box at Christmas amongst gamesters: for whosoeuer loseth, the box will bee sure to be a winner."—Taylor’s Wit and Mirth, 1629.

— th’are some fair gamesters use
To pay the box well, especially at In and In,
Innes of Court butlers would have but a
Bad Christmas of it else."

—Cotgrave’s Treasury of Wit and Language, 1655. Gay, in his "Trivia," mentions this:

"Some boys are rich by birth beyond all wants,
Belov’d by uncles, and kind, good, old aunts;
When time comes round, a Christmas box they bear,
And one day makes them rich for all the year."

In a catalogue of Presbyterian books, I find one, with the following title, "Christmas cordials fit for refreshing the souls and cheering the hearts; and more fit for Christmas-boxes than geld or silver.’’

"The Christmas box," (says the Connoisseur), "was formerly the bounty of well-disposed people, who were willing to contribute something towards rewarding the industrious, and supplying them with necessaries. But the gift is now almost demanded as a right, and our journeymen, apprentices, &c., are grown so polite, that instead of reserving their Christmas box for its original use, their ready cash serves them only for pocket-money; and instead of visiting their friends and relations, they commence the fine gentlemen of the week."

The bestowing of Christmas boxes indeed, is one of those absurd customs of antiquity which, till within these few years had spread itself almost into a national grievance. The butcher and the baker sent their journeymen and apprentices to levy contributions on their customers, who were paid back again in fees to the servants of the different families. The tradesman had, in consequence, a pretence to lengthen out his bill, and the master and mistress to lower the wages on account of the vails. Presents were made by bakers to their customers at this time in old days: a baby of paste, or a cake with the figure of a lamb on it; but, although in the formation of cakes all sorts of fantastic shapes are still resorted to, and lambs in sugar and flour are still occasionally to be seen, the good ancient custom of giving such things away has died out. At Wrexham, in Denbighshire, the tradespeople unanimously resolved in 1867 to give no Christmas boxes. and to present, instead, £35 to the local charities. Comp. Nares and Halliwell in v. Monsieur de Valois says that the Kings of France gave presents to their soldiers at this season.

Editor's Note: I regret that I am unable to provide a translation of any Latin passages.

Print Page Return Home Page Close Window

If you would like to help support Hymns and Carols of Christmas, please click on the button below and make a donation.

Related Hymns and Carols