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Carol For St Stephen's Day

On the day succeeding Christmas day the Church commemorates the death
of the proto-martyr Stephen, and in honour of this festival the
following carol is sung:--

In friendly Love and Unity,
For good St. Stephen's Sake,
Let us all, this blessed Day,
To Heaven our Prayers make:
That we with him the Cross of Christ
May freely undertake.
And Jesus will send you his Blessing.

Those accursed Infidels
That stoned him to Death,
Could not by their cruelties
Withhold him from his Faith,
In such a godly Martyrdom
Seek we all the Path.
And Jesus, etc.

And whilst we sit here banqueting,
Of dainties having Store,
Let us not forgetful be
To cherish up the Poor;
And give what is convenient
To those that ask at Door.
And Jesus, etc.

For God hath made you Stewards here,
Upon the Earth to dwell;
He that gathereth for himself,
And will not use it well,
Lives far worse than Dives did,
That burneth now in Hell.
And Jesus, etc.

And, now, in Love and Charity,
See you your Table spread,
That I may taste of your good Cheer,
Your Christmas Ale and Bread:
Then I may say that I full well
For this, my Carol, sped.
And Jesus, etc.

For Bounty is a blessed Gift,
The Lord above it sends,
And he that gives it from His Hands,
Deserveth many Friends:
I see it on my Master's Board,
And so my Carol ends.
Lord Jesus, etc.

But St. Stephen's day is much better known in England as Boxing Day,
from the kindly custom of recognising little services rendered during
the year by giving a Christmas box--a custom which, of course, is
liable to abuse, and especially when, as in many instances, it is
regarded as a right, in which case it loses its pleasant significance.
No one knows how old this custom is, nor its origin. Hutchinson, in
his History of Northumberland (vol. ii. p. 20), says: 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. There is a somewhat whimsical account of its
origin in the first attempt at Notes and Queries, The Athenian
Oracle, by John Dunton (1703, vol. i. 360).

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 People in
Mind to send Gifts, Offerings, Oblations, to have Masses said for
everything almost, that a Ship goes not out to the Indies, but the
Priest 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, etc.,
the Poor People must put something into the Priest's Box, which is not
to be Opened till the Ship Return. Thus the Mass at that time was
called 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 the Liberty to get Box-money, because they
might be able to pay the Priest for his Masses, because No Penny, No

At all events, the Christmas box was a well-known institution in the
early seventeenth century. We have already seen Pepys dropping money
here and there at Christ-tide, and on 28th December 1668 he notes:
Called up by drums and trumpets; these things and boxes having cost
me much money this Christmas already, and will do more. Yet the
custom must have been much older, for in the accounts of Dame Agnes
Merett, Cellaress of Syon Monastery, at Isleworth, in 29 Henry VIII.,
1537-38 (Record Office Roll, T.G. 18,232), the following are
entered among the Foreigne Paymentes: Reward to the servauntes at
Crystemas, with their aprons xxs. Reward to the Clerk of the Kechyn,
xiijs. iiijd. Reward to the Baily of the Husbandry, vis. viijd. Reward
to the Keeper of the Covent Garden, vis. viijd.

As time went on we find increasing notices of Christmas boxes. In
Beaumont and Fletcher's Wit without Money (Act ii. sc. 2) A Widow
is a Christmas box that sweeps all.

Swift, in his Journal to Stella, mentions them several times. 26th
December 1710: By the Lord Harry, I shall be undone here with
Christmas boxes. The rogues at the Coffee-house have raised their tax,
every one giving a crown, and I gave mine for shame, besides a great
many half-crowns to great men's porters, etc.

24th December 1711: I gave Patrick half a crown for his Christmas
box, on condition he would be good; and he came home drunk at

2nd January 1712: I see nothing here like Christmas, excepting brawn
and mince pies in places where I dine, and giving away my half crowns
like farthings to great men's porters and butlers.

Gay, in his Trivia, thus mentions it:--

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.

But the Christmas box was an entity, and tangible; it was a saving's
box made of earthenware, which must be broken before the cash could be
extracted, as can be proved by several quotations, and the gift took
its name from the receptacle for it.

In Mason's Handful of Essaies 1621: Like a swine, he never doth
good till his death; as an apprentice's box of earth, apt he is to
take all, but to restore none till hee be broken.

In the frontispiece to Blaxton's English Usurer, 1634, the same
simile is used:--

Both with the Christmas Boxe may well comply,
It nothing yields till broke; they till they die.

And again, in Browne's Map of the Microcosme, 1642, speaking of a
covetous man, he says, he doth exceed in receiving, but is very
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
potter's vessell, into many shares.

Aubrey, in his Wiltshire Collections, circ. 1670 (p. 45), thus
describes a trouvaille of Roman coins. Among the rest was an
earthen pott of the colour of a Crucible, and of the shape of a
prentice's Christmas Box, with a slit in it, containing about a quart,
which was near full of money. This pot I gave to the Repository of the
Royal Society at Gresham College.

And, to wind up these Christmas box notices, I may quote a verse from
Henry Carey's Sally in our Alley (1715?).

When Christmas comes about again,
Oh! then I shall have money;
I'll hoard it up, and box and all,
I'll give it to my honey.

There used to be a very curious custom on St. Stephen's day, which
Douce says was introduced into this country by Danes--that of bleeding
horses. That it was usual is, I think, proved by very different
authorities. Tusser says:--

Yer Christmas be passed, let horsse be let blood,
For manie a purpose it dooth him much good;
The day of S. Steeven old fathers did use;
If that do mislike thee, some other day chuse.

And Barnebe Googe, in his translation of Naogeorgus, remarks:--

Then followeth Saint Stephen's day, whereon doth every man
His horses iaunt and course abrode, as swiftly as he can;
Untill they doe extreemely sweate, and than they let them blood,
For this being done upon this day, they say doth do them good,
And keepes them from all maladies and secknesse through the yeare,
As if that Steuen any time tooke charge of horses heare.

Aubrey, also, in his Remains of Gentilisme, says: On St. Stephen's
day the farrier came constantly, and blouded all our cart horses.

It was occasionally the day of great festivity, even though it came
so very closely after Christmas day; and Mr. J.G. Nichols, in Notes
and Queries (2 ser. viii. 484), quotes a letter, dated 2nd January
1614, in confirmation. It is from an alderman of Leicester to his
brother in Wood Street, Cheapside. Yow wryte how yow reacayved my
lettar on St. Steven's day, and that, I thanke yow, yow esteemed yt as
welcoom as the 18 trumpytors; w^{t} in so doing, I must and will
esteme yowres, God willing, more wellcoom then trumpets and all the
musicke we have had since Christmas, and yet we have had prety store
bothe of owre owne and othar, evar since Christmas. And the same day
we were busy w^{t} hollding up hands and spoones to yow, out of
porredge and pyes, in the remembraunce of yowre greate lyberality of
frute and spice, which God send yow long lyffe to contynew, for of
that day we have not myssed anny St. Steven this 47 yeare to have as
many gas (guests) as my howse will holld, I thank God for yt.

In Southey's Common Place Book it is noted that the three Vicars of
Bampton, Oxon., give beef and beer on the morning of St. Stephen's day
to those who choose to partake of it. This is called St. Stephen's
breakfast. The same book also mentions a singular custom in Wales,
that on this day everybody is privileged to whip another person's legs
with holly, which is often reciprocated till the blood streams down;
and this is corroborated in Mason's Tales and Traditions of Tenby,
where it is mentioned as being practised in that town.

We have heard of hunting the wren in the Isle of Man; the same custom
obtains in the south of Ireland, only it takes place on St. Stephen's
day. There is a tradition which is supposed to account for this
animosity against this pretty and harmless little bird. In one of the
many Irish rebellions a night march was made by a body of rebels on a
party of royalists, and when, about dawn of day, they neared the
sleeping out-posts, a slumbering drummer was aroused by a tapping on
his drum; and, giving the alarm, the rebels were repulsed. The tapping
was caused by a wren pecking at the crumbs left on the drum-head after
the drummer's last meal. Henceforward a grudge was nursed against the
wren, which has existed until now.

The wren boys go round, calling at houses, either having a dead wren
in a box, or hung on a holly bush, and they sing a song:--

The Wran, the Wran, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen's day she's cotched in the furze;
Although she's but wee, her family's great,
So come down, Lan'leddy, and gie us a trate.
Then up wi' the kettle, an' down wi' the pan,
An' let us ha' money to bury the Wran.

Croker, in his Researches in the South of Ireland (p. 233), gives us
more of this song:--

The Wren, the Wren, the King of all birds,
St. Stephen's day was caught in the furze;
Although he is little, his family's great,
I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.

My box would speak if it had but a tongue,
And two or three shillings would do it no wrong;
Sing holly, sing ivy--sing ivy, sing holly,
A drop just to drink, it would drown melancholy.

And, if you draw it of the best,
I hope in Heaven your soul may rest;
But, if you draw it of the small,
It won't agree with the Wren boys at all, etc. etc.

A small piece of money is usually bestowed on them, and the evening
concludes in merrymaking with the money thus collected.

Next: St John's Day

Previous: Christ-tide Literature

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