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So begins the strains of a familiar old English Christmas Carol. It’s the story of Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907–935), a saintly king who goes out in a storm to give a poor man not just the bare minimum of fuel, but also a feast. As he and his servant brave the elements, the King is so pious that even his footsteps give off enough heat to warm his cold and tiring page.
But when is the Feast of Stephen aka St Stephen’s Day? and Why would we sing a song about it at Christmastime? Why should the story last centuries, nay a full millennium?
The story is about giving, and a saint, but what does it have to do with angels on high, babes in a manger, eight tiny reindeer, or the twelve days of Christmas? Aha! St Stephen’s Day falls on December 26th, and that is the Second Day of Christmas! In most of the English speaking world, however, this day has another name: Boxing Day.
BOXING Day? As in…St Stephen was the Patron Saint of Boxers?
No no no, St Stephen is the Patron Saint of the Republika Srpska and was the first Christian martyr, but he no longer fits into our story. Little is known of his life before he became a deacon of the church, and what is known after that is only told in Acts of the Apostles (6:1-8:2). The fact remains, every Saint has his day and December 26th is Stephen’s.
So then, what exactly is Boxing Day?
Boxing Day is a Bank Holiday, which means that, much like Thanksgiving in the US, people living in Great Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and some other Commonwealth nations get to take off work on both Christmas and the day after, lucky ducks. It’s also a Bank Holiday in Ireland, but the Irish continue to name the day after St Stephen and not after boxes.
But what boxes, exactly?
Nobody is quite sure. The tradition of boxing day is to give to those in need, much like Good King Wenceslas did. The question of tradition is not as much what it is, but how exactly it came about. The “boxes” referred to are most likely the alms, or poor, boxes in churches. Back in the late Roman/early Christian era these boxes were placed outside the churches specifically for St Stephen’s Day and the special offerings made then.
There is another theory, however, and it is tied not to religious practices but to practical ones. Wealthy landowners in the United Kingdom were always in the practice of giving their servants the 26th of December off in exchange for excellent service on Christmas. As each servant left the household to spend time with his or her family, the Lord gave them a box. This box contained money, gifts and many times food leftover from the Yuletide feast. During the 17th Century the town tradesmen went out and collected these Christmas Boxes as a thank you gift for a year’s worth of good service. If you leave cookies in the mail box for your postal carrier, you too are carrying on this tradition.
Now Boxing Day has another reason for the name – shopping at Big Box Stores. December 26th in Commonwealth Countries has comes to be much of the same thing as Black Friday here in the US. Stores open at 5 am or earlier, and it is the day that many merchants make their greatest revenue. The deals and shopping is so good, Boxing Day has turned in Boxing Week.
Boxing Week would be good if we all did what Good King Wenceslas did, and spent the time giving the excess of what we had to those who had less. But, that, after all, is just a legend.