Good King Wenceslaus and the True Meaning of Boxing Day

by Aaron Alford

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Much has been made in the media about this supposed “War on Boxing Day,” and it’s time someone addressed it!

Okay.  No one has mentioned anything at all about a war on Boxing Day, and most people in the United States have never even heard of it. Still, I feel we need to be reminded of just what the true meaning of this oft-neglected kid-brother of Christmas really is. Let’s keep the box in Boxing Day!

If you haven’t heard of it, Boxing Day is celebrated in Britain and Canada (The Proprietor’s home and native land) and most Commonwealth countries.  For us Canadians, Boxing Day is kind of like the Canadian Black Friday.  (However, Canadian retailers started doing Black Friday sales a couple of years ago, too, so I suppose it’s kind of like Black Friday II: Electric Boogaloo.) It’s the day for big sales and super deals on all your electronic/useless crap needs.  But this wasn’t always the case. Boxing Day used to have much more meaning than that.

Boxing Day has its origins in a practice that used to take place in Britain, in which employers of servants and other tradesmen would give gifts to their employees, often in the form of a box full of presents and bonuses for them to take to their families. The name may also refer to a box traditionally placed at the back of a church on Christmas day to collect offerings for the poor.  In either case, these gifts for servants and for the poor were given on the day immediately following Christmas, which also happens to be the feast day of the first martyr of the Christian Church: Saint Stephen.

And here’s where Good Duke Wenceslaus comes in.

Yes that’s right, “Duke”.

Wenceslaus, you see, was a Bohemian Duke who lived in the early 10th century.  He was a good man, a Gospel man if you will, who was famous for his Christian devotion and especially for his charity to the poor.

A chronicler of Wenceslaus’ life wrote this about him:

“But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you…. (N)o 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.”

Unfortunately, not everyone around the young duke was such a fan, and his own brother conspired against him. He was assassinated at about the age of 30.

These stories and legends about Wenceslaus endured, however. So renowned was he for his love and compassion that his example gave rise to the medieval concept of the “rex justus” or “righteous king”.  It was Emperor Otto the First who later conferred on Wenceslaus the title of “king”, several years after Wenceslaus’ death. These stories later inspired Anglican priest and hymn writer John Mason Neale to write what is technically not a Christmas carol, but a St. Stephen’s Day hymn in 1853.

You’re familiar with the tale he tells, in which the Good King looks out on the snow covered land on “the Feast of Stephen”, or Boxing Day.  When he sees a peasant gathering wood, he sets out to bring the poor man a feast of choice meat and fine wine.  His servant travels with him, but in the blustering cold and wind, the servant becomes faint.  He finds his strength, however, when Wenceslaus tells him to walk in his footsteps in the snow.  The ground itself seems to warm with the footprints of the saint.

And here we come to the true meaning of Boxing Day.

On Christmas day, we celebrate the birth of the eternal and omnipotent God taking flesh and becoming an utterly helpless child. On St. Stephen’s Day, we remember the first martyr of the Church Christ founded. It is interesting to note that young Stephen was himself a deacon of the Church, and his primary role involved distributing the goods of the Church to widows and orphans. It would seem that the day after Christmas was meant to be a day to, in one way or another, remember the poor and the “least of these”. We see that in the examples of Stephen and Wenceslaus. Just as the Christ Child forsook the riches of heaven to bless us, we are reminded to forsake our own riches to bless those around us. As we walk in the footprints of saints such as these, who themselves tried to follow the footsteps of Christ, we find warmth in the ground on which they trod.

So maybe it’s time to reclaim the righteous origins of Boxing Day.  Where are the poor among you?  Who is facing difficulty today? Who is facing hardship in “gathering winter fuel”?  Perhaps we can find a box of blessing for them, and, like Wenceslaus the righteous king, we may ourselves find blessing.

*Special thanks to my friend Sam Tweedle for the title and inspiration behind this piece!

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