The curious case of the Christmas Eve box

By Kate Palmer
BBC News

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Children Isaac and Olivia opening their boxesImage source, Nikki Francis
Image caption,
Isaac and Olivia have enjoyed their Christmas Eve tradition ever since three-year-old Isaac was born

A carrot for Rudolph and a mince pie for Father Christmas are traditions that most British families associate with 24 December. But as so-called Christmas Eve boxes gain popularity, do they add to the festive joy or simply pile on pressure for parents?

Christmas Eve boxes are typically given to young children as a way to break up the anticipation of the next day with some small gifts and activities.

"It's been part of our Christmas routine for three years," said Nikki Francis, a mother-of-two from Leamington Spa in Warwickshire. "If I'm honest I'll make a Christmas Eve box forever."

They can be as simple as a cardboard box or as elaborate as an engraved wooden chest, filled with sweets, pyjamas, films, books and games.

But many parents are oblivious to the Christmas Eve box - while others understandably feel that a box adds to the stress and workload of keeping children entertained over the Christmas holiday.

Image source, Jenny Southern
Image caption,
The Christmas Eve box: a pre-gift that has taken hold in the UK - which many parents may wish to ignore

Mrs Francis, a teaching assistant, gives seven-year-old Olivia and three-year-old Isaac a box of matching pyjamas, hot chocolate and festive films to get them ready for bed.

"Lots of parents have the same idea," she said. "Everyone's at home, the shops are shut and the children are waiting for Christmas to begin."

She admits that it "piles pressure" on families on tight budgets or those who feel Christmas customs are getting out of control.

"Some of my friends just don't get it," she said.

The elf on a shelf is another Christmas craze which she says can "tip the balance from cute to bonkers".

'Sell-out' boxes

Families are now sharing ideas for Christmas Eve boxes on Pinterest, with posts from parents in the US and Canada as well as in the UK.

Google says the number of people in the UK searching for Christmas Eve boxes on its shopping tab reached its highest ever-point between 13 and 19 November 2016.

While it doesn't release overall figures, Google said search volumes were triple that of 2014.

Retailer Matalan's new line of 10,000 empty Christmas Eve boxes sold out by December, while online retailer Notonthehighstreet said sales of its Christmas Eve boxes had increased by 364% since last year and were in their "thousands".

Things commonly found in Christmas Eve boxes

  • A family board game to play in the evening
  • A set of pyjamas they can wear at night and on Christmas morning
  • Some hot chocolate in a festive mug and bubble bath for before bed-time
  • A Christmas film or festive book to read
  • Some Christmassy sweets and chocolate like coins and candy canes
  • Treats to feed the family pet dressed up as "reindeer food"
  • A personal letter from Father Christmas reassuring your child they are on the "good list"

Consumer expert Prof Vince Mitchell said we cannot pin down when Christmas Eve boxes began - but that it was a festive tradition that had been "waiting to happen".

"There's no pretence this is an ancient tradition" although we do already share a Christmas Eve "lull" when children anxiously wait for the next day, he said.

"It's not a day we prepare well for. Boxes solve that problem at a click of a button."

Prof Mitchell suggested parents are also influenced by gift-giving elsewhere in Europe, where children from many countries receive their presents on 24 December.

But in the UK, Christmas Eve boxes are fast becoming a "clever retail invention", Prof Mitchell said.

Image source, Christmas Eve Box
Image caption,
Boxes typically contain some hot chocolate for before bedtime or an activity

"They heighten the anticipation of the following day, which is key to children's Christmas experience," he said.

Middle-class families "who have everything" and families who save up for Christmas are those most likely to buy a box, he added.

"This isn't a fad," Prof Mitchell said. "The Christmas Eve box will develop in terms of what they contain and we'll see a variation in prices from £10 to £100."

Buy or build?

Wooden boxes engraved with a child's name and ready-filled versions are available online for around £20 to £40.

But Jenny Southern, a craft-maker from Southport, said it was easy to make a personalised Christmas Eve box that is not just like "another toy".

"I make a lot of gifts anyway and have always done a box for my seven-year-old," she said.

Image source, Jenny Southern
Image caption,
Craft-maker Jenny Southern makes boxes, which she says keep children busy the day before Christmas

She suggests writing a child a letter from Santa telling them that they have made it onto the "nice" list.

Another idea is to include a door hanger with a bell and ribbon on it, which the child writes their name on.

"Include an activity - it keeps children busy, so parents have some time to prepare the turkey," Ms Southern said.