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.