“Ere Christmas be passed let horse be let blood,
for many a purpose it doth them much good.
The day of St. Stephen old fathers did use:
if that do mislike thee some other day choose.
Thomas Tusser, Five hundred points of Good Husbandrie
Boxing Day for the modern household may involve the Boxing Day sales, more Christmas food or sitting on the sofa but to those until at least the 16th century who had horses or cattle it was an important day for phlebotomy – or blood-letting. It was common enough a tradition in the late 16th-century for poets such as Truse, who was also a farmer whose work was a poetical book on agricultural advice.
The view was widespread across Europe at the time as a quote from German protestant pastor and playwright Thomas Naogeorgus evidences:
“Then followeth Saint Stephens days, whereon doth every man
His horses jaunt and course abrode as swiftly as he can
Until 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 sicknesse through the yeare,
As if that Steven any time took charge of horses heare.”
Why let horses?
The tradition of blood letting is based on the principle of the four humours. This being that there were four elements: fire, earth, water and air, and four had corresponding body fluids: yellow bile, black bile, phlgem and blood. From the ancient Greeks onwards it was thought that an imbalance of these caused sickness and thus if there was too much blood sickness could arise!
Why St Stephen’s Day?
The reasons why this was done on St Stephen’s Day is unclear. It is possible that he was thought to be the patron saint of horses. Hone in his 1826 Everyday Book suggests:
“About Christmas is a very proper time to bleed horses in for then they are commonly at house then spring comes on un being now coming back from the solstice and there are three or days of rest and if it be upon St Stephen’s day it is not the worse seeing there are with it three days of rest or at least two.”
The custom would appear to be widespread. An entry:
Item for letting our horses blede in Chrystmasse weke iiijd
Is in the Receipts and of the Canons of St Mary in Huntingdon Hone suggests that his sources that the tradition was brought to Britain by the Danes and states a book called Wits Fits and Fancies states:
“it is the custome for all horses to be let bloud and drench’d A gentleman being that morning demaunded whether it pleased him to have his horse let bloud and drencht according to the fashion He answered no sirra my horse is not diseas’d of the fashions.”
In John Brand’s Book of Days he quotes John Aubrey who says:
“On St Stephen’s day the farrier came constantly and blouded all our cart horses.”
The wisdom of blood-letting as medicine improved disappeared as people realised by draining the blood they were making the patient potentially more ill or prone to disease. Consequently did this most curious custom but one would imagine it survived in rural areas longer than one would have expected.