December 26 seems a very English tradition. Its roots go back to the days of Lords and Ladies handing out boxes of food and gifts to those in service, which is where the name Boxing Day comes from. But it actually means so much more.
Probably the first widely accepted mention in print of Boxing Day dates back to the 1830s, but the act of giving to the less fortunate on the day after Christmas is recorded in the Middle Ages (between the fifth and 15th centuries). Today, this charitable day has become something more like Black Friday, with shops offering large discounts to eager consumers.
Saint Stephen is believed to have been a Greek Jew who converted to Christianity. He was highly regarded for distributing food to the poor, especially Greek widows. But he was accused of preaching blasphemy against Moses and God, and he was sentenced to be stoned to death.
Eventually, Stephen was declared a saint. Today, he’s remembered as a great example of how people should give generously. It seems likely that Boxing Day has its earliest roots in the life of the saint.
In History and Song
The 1853 Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas,” is quite the story within a story. King Wenceslas (Saint Wenceslaus) refers to the Duke of Bohemia, who was assassinated in 935. He was regarded as a Rex Justus (Righteous King) after his death, and a Czech chronicler wrote of him:
“But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.”
This was the inspiration for the song. It describes him seeing a poor man in need of fuel on Saint Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day) and goes on to tell of his generosity to his fellow man.
Keeping With Tradition
While the modern world encourages us to see the second day of Christmas as little more than a consumer extravaganza, by holding to the original roots, we can follow in the snowy footsteps of a Bohemian king, a martyr of the church, and good folks everywhere.
Gifts are always appreciated, but it is in the act of giving and the care of others that we can celebrate the true meaning of Boxing Day.