The second day of Christmas has a history attached to it that makes it a significant event not just in the British cultural calendar in the form of Boxing Day, but worldwide as a day to celebrate Christianity’s first martyr. December 26 seems a very English tradition in that its roots go back to the days of Lords and Ladies handing out boxes of food and gifts to those in service … hence Boxing Day. 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). These early gifts are thought to be relative to the Alms Boxes that were situated in the lobby area (or narthex) of the churches. Yet now, this charitable day has devolved into something more akin to Black Friday, with shops offering large discounts to eager consumers. Despite appearing an English relic more suited to Downton Abbey, there is a strong argument that its roots and importance hark all the way back to the very foundation of the Christian faith.
Saint Stephen is credited in the Book of Acts as a deacon in a Jerusalem church. Believed to be a Greek Jew who converted to Christianity, he was highly regarded for distributing food to the poor, especially Greek widows. His downfall came when he was accused of preaching blasphemy against Moses and God, and he was sentenced to be stoned to death.
He was declared a saint in pre-congregation times and is celebrated in regions worldwide as an example of giving. 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. It opens with the lyrics:
Good King Wenceslas looked out,
on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night,
tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
gath’ring winter fuel.
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.”
Such was the inspiration for the eponymous carol. 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
Should this festival then be deemed an archaic colonial holdover, or does it still hold value to the ideas of charity, faith, and the consideration of others? 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.