Monday, December 18, 2017

Gift Giving Traditions of the Regency

by Maria Grace

The Coming of Father Christmas
Courtesy of the British Library 

Though gift giving was not the primary focus of the Christmastide season, gifts were commonly exchanged. St. Nicholas Day, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and Twelfth Night were the most likely days for gift exchange, although old traditions called for gifts to be exchanged on New Year’s Day.

Many gifts exchanged were gifts of obligation between unequal parties. Land owners and the well-off presented charitable gifts to beggars and the poor of the community. They also provided favors to their tenants, servants and tradesmen they patronized. These tokens might be coins, food, particularly expensive foodstuffs, or castoff clothes and goods.

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Gifts might also be presented from those lower in status to those above them. Beggars offered songs, holly springs or simple handicrafts to their benefactors. Tradesmen might send special goods like Yule Candles to their best patrons. Tenants might bestow gifts of their harvest to the landowner in recognition of generosity and possibly to encourage him not to raise their rents.

Social equals like friends and family also might indulge in gift giving, though men and women did not exchange gifts unless they were married, engaged or related by blood. These gifts were generally more personal in nature than obligatory gifts.

Ladies might showcase their accomplishments in their gifts. Skilled hands prepared embroidered handkerchiefs and slippers for loved ones. Clever needles could create scarves, shawls, laces, trims and similar items. Paintings, drawings and other decorative arts graced a variety of gift items.

Gifts could be and often were purchased, with clothing and jewelry (especially that made with locks of hair) being among the most common items for both sexes. Books, sheet music, fancy boxes and supplies for activities like writing or handicrafts were also popular.

Gift giving became more prevalent toward the end of the Regency period and into the Victorian. Advertisers began to run ads in periodicals suggesting novel ideas for gifts. One 1814 advertisement in Ackermann’s Repository suggested Marston’s patent stays and corsets, designed to comfortably support the weak and debilitated were a most acceptable gift for one’s parents.

Boxing Day

"Good King Wenceslas Looked Out On The Feast Of Stephen"

The traditional Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” points us to a 10th century start to the Boxing Day tradition. Wenceslas, a 10th century Bohemian Duke, surveyed his land on St. Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26) and saw a peasant gathering wood in the middle of a snowstorm. Moved with compassion, Wenceslas collected food and wine from his own stores and took them through the storm to the peasant’s home. His charitable deed became associated with St. Stephan’s day, making it a day for acts of charity toward the needy.

By Arthur Gaskin [Public Domain]
via Wikimedia Commons

Medieval Connections to Boxing Day

During the Middle Ages, churches maintained collection boxes for the poor. By tradition, these boxes were opened and the contents distributed to the poor on the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The association with the alms boxes may have led to the appellation, Boxing Day.

Boxing Day in the Georgian Era

Servants were often given the day off to celebrate Christmas with their families since their well-off employers required their service on Christmas Day. This may not seem like much to modern sensibilities, but servants had very little time off, much less coordinated time off with other family members. The day off on Boxing Day often meant than families could visit together even though they might work at different establishments.

Old clothing and extra items were boxed up in ‘Christmas Boxes’ and handed out to servants and tradesmen on Boxing Day. Old clothing might not seem like a particularly desirable gift, however, in Jane Austen’s day, textiles (fabric and trims) were very expensive. Old clothes were only cast off if one was very wealthy. Otherwise, they were remade into other garments by taking them apart, re-cutting and possibly re-dying the fabric. When clothes could no longer be remade, they were used for cleaning clothes, rags and even made into rugs. A healthy trade in second hand garment also existed, so if the lucky recipient of the gift could use neither the garment nor its fabric, it could always be sold.

By Chris Hammond (1860-1900) - Lilly Library
[Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Landowners and the well-off were expected to be especially generous on Boxing Day. Many held a kind of open house on Christmas Day or Boxing Day for tenants and less fortunate neighbors. The more fortunate often gave food or money to those less so that they might celebrate on their own. 

Churches also collected money in alms-boxes during the season and distributed it to the needy after Christmas. 

A second St. Stephen, a 9th century martyr and patron saint of horses gave rise to another Boxing Day tradition, horse racing and fox hunting.

Boxing Day also saw the start of Christmastide pantos. Rather than marking the end of the holiday season as we might consider it, Boxing Day started the festivities that would culminate on Twelfth Night.


Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful.

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.


  1. Very enjoyable post, as always! Charitable giving has a long tradition.

  2. Very informative, I never knew Christmas was called Christmastide, excellent blog and post.


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