The dustman, the turncock, the postman, and the tradesman's boy expect their Christmas boxes at Christmas time, but they could not explain the origin of the custom, and would not if they could. It is a money collecting season for them, and the more they can rake in the better they like it. A handful of silver is worth a good deal of book knowledge about Christmas boxes in the past.
One writer says:--"The Romish Priests had masses said for almost everything: if a ship went out to the Indies, the priest 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, etc. 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 priests for his masses knowing well the truth of the proverb. 'No penny: no Pater-nosters'." If this be the true origin, the modern custom appears to be a strange perversion of the primary intention. But we find that barbers' shops used to be supplied with a box on the wall into which every customer put something; the presumption being that these thrift boxes, as they were called, had no ecclesiastical purpose in view, their associations being secular--even selfish, in a non-depreciatory sense. So also Gay in his Trivia says:
"Some boys are rich by birth beyond all wants,
Beloved 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."
Christmas boxing was apparently a youth's prerogative in those days, just as it used to be in the early nineteenth century.
But it is possible to trace the custom beyond the border line of the earliest Roman Christianity, to the Roman Paganalia instituted by Servius Tullius and celebrated in the beginning of the year. An altar was erected in every village where persons gave money. The apprentices' boxes were formerly made of pottery, and Aubrey mentions a pot in which Roman denarii were found resembling in appearance an apprentices' earthen Christmas box. Professor E. B. Tylor, in his Primitive Culture is of opinion that the customs of Yuletide reveal a heathen if not invariably a solar origin. Christmas boxes--and of course Boxing Day is the day when the boxes were opened and the money distributed--were a duplicate of Roman gifts called strenoe. The practice of giving Christmas presents is of later date.