This small book, A Good Christmas Box, contains a selection of Christmas carols. It was published in 1847 by G Walters of Dudley, a West Midlands town. During the 19th century the Midlands was well-known for its caroling traditions.
Among more obscure carols, it contains many that are still well-known today including ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ and ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’ (here called ‘Herald Angels’).
The caroling tradition
This collection was popularly known and widely used in the contemporary period and later. In 1911, Shropshire, Cecil Sharp recorded that, ‘The singers had with them a chap-book… called A Good Christmas Box (Dudley, 1847), consisting of 125 pages and containing the words of 48 carols, several of which are still sung in that neighbourhood’ (p. 67, English Folk-Carols). It was also consulted as a source book for later carol collections, including The Oxford Book of Carols.
In the earlier part of the 19th century, however, the caroling tradition had nearly died out. Over the course of the 19th century the tradition was revived by an increasing number of choral singers and a surge in published collections, such as A Good Christmas Box.
On the title page ‘Christmas Box’ is typeset in Gothic script. Also known as blackletter, this script was possibly chosen to evoke earlier, particularly medieval, periods, which were famous for their lavish Christmas celebrations.
What is a ‘Christmas box’?
Boxes containing money or other presents were traditionally exchanged as part of Christmas festivities on St Stephen’s Day, 26 December, now known as Boxing Day. Boxing Day derives its name from this custom. Later, ‘box’ became a generic term for the gift itself.
Typically, Christmas boxes were given between acquaintances who exchanged services. Trades-people commonly gifted boxes to their best customers – bakers providing a plum-pudding, for instance – or wealthy houses presented boxes to their servants.