An Account of Boxing Day in 1731
Today is Boxing Day, a traditional holiday in England and other places that involved, at one time, giving gifts to your servants. One English gentleman wrote this account of the holiday in 1731:
By that time I was up, my servants could do nothing but run to the door. Inquiring the meaning, I was answered, the people were coming for their Christmas-box: this was logic to me; but I found at last, that, because I had laid out a great deal of ready-money with my brewer, baker, and other tradesmen, they kindly thought it my duty to present their servants with some money for the favour of having their goods. This provoked me a little; but being told it was ‘the custom,’ I complied. These were followed by the watch, beadles, dustmen, and an innumerable tribe; but what vexed me the most was the clerk, who has an extraordinary place, and makes as good an appearance as most tradesmen in the parish; to see him come a boxing, alias begging, I thought was intolerable: however, I found it was ‘the custom’ too, so I gave him half-a-crown; as I was likewise obliged to do to the bellman, for breaking my rest for many nights together.
Having talked this matter over with a friend, he promised to carry me where I might see the good effects of this given box-money. In the evening, away we went to a neighboring alehouse, where abundance of these gentry were assembled round a stately piece of roast beef, and as large a plum-pudding. When the drink and brandy began to work, they fell to reckoning of their several gains that day: one was called a stingy dog for giving but sixpence; another called an extravagant fool for giving half-a-crown, which perhaps he might want before the year was out; so I found these good people were never to be pleased. Some of them were got to cards by themselves, which soon produced a quarrel and broken heads, In the interim came in some of their wives, who roundly abused the people for having given them money; adding, that instead of doing good, it ruined their families, and set them in a road of drinking and gaming, which never ceased till not only their gifts, but their wages, were gone. One good woman said, if people had a mind to give charity they should send it home to their families: I was very much of her opinion; but, being tired with the noise, we left them to agree as they could.
My friend next carried me to the upper end of Piccadilly, where, one pair of stairs over a stable, we found near a hundred people of both sexes, tome masked, others not, a great part of which were dancing to the music of two sorry fiddles. It is impossible to describe this medley of mortals fully; however, I will do it as well as I can. There were footmen, servant-maids, butchers, apprentices, oyster and orange-women, and sharpers, which appeared to be the best of the company. This horrid place seemed to be a complete nursery for the gallows. My friend informed me, it was called a ‘threepenny hop;’ and while we were talking, to my great satisfaction, by order of the Westminster justices, to their immortal honour, entered the constables and their assistants, who carried off all the company that was left; and, had not my friend been known to them, we might have paid dear for our curiosity.1
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1. Anecdotes of the Manners and Customs of London during the Eighteenth Century by James Peller Malcolm (London: Longman, Furst, Reesm, and Orme, 1810) vol. 1, p. 289-290.