The day after Christmas. Boxing Day. We think of it mostly as a shopping day: The day when everything that was priced up for Christmas is priced down for quick sale. It has long been the day when frugal shoppers look for savings on next year’s Christmas wrap, on seasonal items like red and green tortilla chips and breakfast cereals, on winter coats, and on electronics. There are, however some much older and more benevolent traditions behind this day.
December 26 is St. Stephen’s Day (the Feast of St. Stephen) for western Christian churches. For centuries, churches put metal boxes outside their doors on the Feast of St. Stephen, into which parishioners deposited food for the poor. Wealthy nobles marked the day and demonstrated their piety by committing acts of charity.
Do you remember the carol about Good King Wenceslas? Actually a Bohemian duke, Wenceslas was honoured as a saint and posthumously awarded the title of king because of his acts of charity. Most famous of these is the story in the carol; a recounting of how, on St. Stephen’s Day, he ventured out into the snow to deliver firewood and food to the home of a struggling peasant. He took with him a single page and when the page found the snow and cold too much to cope with, took the lead himself, enabling the page to make his way through the path Wenceslas had broken in the snow.
The true story of Wenceslas is lost to history—he lived nearly a thousand years ago—but upon his death a cult grew up around him in both Bohemia and England. Within decades, four different biographies had been written about him. The legend of his generosity had a powerful influence on the High Middle Ages conceptualization of the rex justus, or "righteous king"—that is, a monarch whose power stems mainly from his great piety, as well as from his princely vigour.[i]
Although the tradition of giving alms to the poor on St. Stephen’s Day has continued on right into this century, in Britain a second, more temporal, tradition arose as well: In order to ensure the smooth running of the household on Christmas Day, those who employed servants would allow them a day with their families on December 26.
On Boxing Day, the gentry gave their servants bonuses and boxes of gifts to take home with them, and also gave Christmas boxes to tradesmen to thank them for their good service throughout the year. This more recent Boxing Day tradition came to Canada (and spread throughout the rest of the British empire) with English settlers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Until quite recently, businesses were closed on Boxing Day. It was observed as a statutory holiday all across Canada. About fifty years ago, though, enterprising merchants saw an opportunity in this day off and began opening their doors to holiday-makers; offering sales to draw them in.
Boxing Day has since become an optional holiday in most provinces, and many Canadians now find themselves hard at work on December 26. The traditions originally centered around this holiday have faded over time and most people are no longer aware of its philanthropic past. Commerce has become the primary focus, and much of our population spends Boxing Day either spending money or serving those who are shopping.
Why am I telling you all this?
Well, I’m certainly not a preacher so I won’t exhort you to “get thee to a church,” and I would never wax rhapsodic about the “good old days” of master and servant. I am well aware of the hardships and inequalities that existed during those times.
I dislike the commercialization that has arisen around the holiday season and I wish that everyone had the opportunity to stay home with their families today, but I also like shopping as much as the next person. I'm always pleased to get better value for my money.
I do think, though, that we could take something of value from the earlier traditions of Boxing Day, by carrying its history of philanthropy forward.
Some of us are fortunate enough to have enjoyed gifts and holiday feasts in the past week or two but there are also people within our communities who are in need. Their needs will continue, and in many cases increase, in the days and weeks after the holidays.
Many food banks are closed for a week or two after Christmas, placing increased demand upon soup kitchens. If there is a community kitchen where you live and you are able to contribute, please consider picking up some extra produce while you’re out shopping, and dropping it off at their door.
If there is a seniors’ drop in center that serves lunch in your area, you might consider donating a pot of soup.
If there’s a woman’s center open, a gift of blankets, diapers, or formula would be appropriate. There’s always a need for these items.
If none of these facilities are open in your area, you can pick up some extra non-perishable food items to donate when the food bank’s doors re-open. After the seasonal closures, the demands upon them will be huge.
Happy Boxing Day. My wish for all of you today is the same wish I hold in my heart every other day: That you have a safe home, enough food, good health, and people who love you. If you are in need of any of these things, you’re in my thoughts. I hope that they find their way to you very soon.