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Of Saints and Boxes: Boxing Day Explained

Two Christian martyrs are inextricably linked to this British day off. We're not sure how they got to be, but they are.

What do the first Christian martyr, a 10th-Century duke and an old British custom have to do with each other? They are all inextrcably linked to the day after Christmas.

We've all heard the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas and probably sung it having no clue what the Feast of Stephen was, let alone that Wenceslas was, in fact, a real person. Or that the Feast of Stephen may be the root of the British holiday known as Boxing Day.

Let's start with the Feast of Stephen. Stephen (or St. Stephen as he is known in the Catholic Church) was the first believer in Jesus to suffer martyrdom. As told in the biblical book Acts of the Apostles, Stephen was preaching about Jesus and got the local religious establishment significantly riled up. Not realizing that the best way to give a new movement some traction is to persecute it, the Powers That Be pounced on Stephen and stoned him to death, Acts 7:54-60.

Fast forward maybe three to four hundred years (maybe more), not only has Christianity survived repeated persecutions, it's the State religion. To celebrate all the folks that gave up their lives, plus some of the other ones who didn't but were considered pretty holy anyway, the Church decides to celebrate them by giving them feast days - kind of like celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Stephen gets assigned the day after Christmas, what we now call December 26. So the Feast of Stephen is December 26.

Moving on another four to five hundred years to the middle of the 10th Century, things in Europe are pretty dark, as in The Dark Ages. But, lo, a young man becomes the Duke of Bohemia (or what we now call the Czech Republic) and he gets a significant reputation as being a really, really pious Christian, in spite of the fact that his mom is a pagan. His name is Wenceslas I, and while it's not clear if he really was that nice a guy or he had the Medeival equivalent of Really Good Press, folks know him for giving the poor lots of money and generally being kind to people.

But he also gets to be a martyr because his brother Boleslav kills him - supposedly on the way to church, but that might be the Really Good Press part. The Vatican, which has major power at this point, makes Wenceslas a king and a saint, and the Czech people revere him and build statues of him and this big legend evolves. Boleslav reportedly had regrets about killing Wenceslas, possibly because offing your brother does not get you Really Good Press, even way back then.

But when the Vatican made Wenceslas a saint, he was assigned September 28 as his feast day, which it still is. Which promptly begs the question, how did he get hooked into the whole Feast of Stephen thing? Blame John Mason Neale, an English hymnwriter who apparently took a 13th century hymn from Finland and translated a Czech poem about Wenceslas, combined them and published it as part of a collection of tunes titled Carols for Christmas-Tide, published in 1853.

About a hundred years, maybe more, prior to this time, it's fast becoming a tradition in Britain and her colonies to offer servants a gift and a day of rest on the day after Christmas. Because when you're entertaining Grandma and the rest of the family on Christmas Day, the last thing you want to be without is your staff. And supposedly, these servants received a box.

But that may not be the source of Boxing Day. It also appears that many churches would install a collection box during the season of Advent (the four weeks before Christmas), into which people could put offerings of money, or alms, as part of preparing their souls for the celebration of Jesus' birth. And since people really didn't start celebrating Christmas the day itself (as opposed to now when we start celebrating weeks before), the box was traditionally opened and the alms distributed to the needy on the day after Christmas.

As noted in this 2009 article in Time, both explanations could be the source. Or neither. Suffice it to say that in 1871 Boxing Day became an official holiday and is celebrated in much of the British Commonwealth, including Canada. And it's a moveable holiday, so that if Christmas falls on a Friday or Saturday, Boxing Day is moved to the first Monday afterwards so folks are guaranteed a day off. Unless they work in retail shops or play professional sports, since apparently most of the rest of the British population watches sports and goes shopping nowadays.

For more on St./King Wenceslas, check out the Wikipedia entry here.

For more on Boxing Day, here's the Wikipedia link.

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