Friday, December 26, 2008

St. Stephen's Day or Boxing Day

A group of orphans receiving gifts in East London, 1921.

Originally, Boxing Day - the first weekday after Christmas Day - was observed as a holiday "on which postmen, errand boys, and servants of various kinds received a Christmas box of contributions from those whom they serve". (Charles Dickens)

Also, poor people carried empty boxes from door to door, and the boxes were soon filled with food, Christmas sweets, and money. Parents gave their children small gifts such as, oranges, handkerchiefs, and socks. People also placed old clothing that they didn't need anymore in boxes, and they were given to those in need.

The best clue to Boxing Day's origins can be found in the song, "Good King Wenceslas." According to the Christmas carol, Wenceslas, who was Duke of Bohemia in the early 10th century, was surveying his land on St. Stephen's Day — Dec. 26 — when he saw a poor man gathering wood in the middle of a snow storm. Moved, the king gathered up surplus food and wine and carried them through the blizzard to the peasant's door. The alms-giving tradition has always been closely associated with the Christmas season — hence the canned food drives and Salvation Army Santas that pepper our neighborhoods during the winter — but King Wenceslas's good deed came the day after Christmas, when the English poor received most of their charity.