Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Second Day: Boxing Day

How did the second day of Christmas—in western tradition, the feast of Saint Stephen, first Christian martyr—come to be identified with both a tradition in England and a king in Bohemia? I can't say; some things just happen. Correlation does not signify causation. It's just how the western Catholic church has traditionally designated the day.

The tradition, somehow, has become intertwined with the custom of giving gifts to the poor on the second day of Christmas. Particularly in the United Kingdom—Great Britain, in particular, and many of the countries once associated with the British Empire—this day is designated as Boxing Day. Just as you might have boxed up a gift to give to a loved one on Christmas morning, this second day of Christmas became the time to box up alms and gifts for the less fortunate.

Though no one seems to know the true origin of the Boxing Day custom—and there are many versions explaining that origin, from the myth-busting Snopes to the mirth-eliciting New Yorker, and many variations in between—it is generally thought to have had its roots in the custom of the British upper class, having required their household servants to work during Christmas Day festivities, to release them for their own celebrations at home the day following. And, in the tradition of the feast of Saint Stephen, that day off was often accompanied by generous gifts from the well-off for those less fortunate than they.

Somewhere along the way, the feast of Saint Stephen became the inspiration for a Christmas carol—one musical commemoration of the Christmas season, in fact, in which there is no mention whatsoever of the Nativity.
Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even....

For those of us who are avid collectors of traditional Christmas carols, you immediately may have recalled the tune that starts with those lines. The carol tells a story which is set on this very day: December 26 (at least in the western church calendar).

Only problem is: the good king wasn't exactly a king; he was likely a tenth century duke of Bohemia, also known as Vaclav the Good. As the history of the era goes, Vaclav the Good had a brother, known as Boleslaw the Bad (or, if you prefer, Boleslaus the Cruel). And an ambitious mother who, after her mother-in-law assumed power upon the death of her son (the previous duke of Bohemia), had the woman disposed of and assumed control of the land, herself.

It was in this scene, with his mom in charge as regent and taking vindictive action against the local Christians, that the young Vaclav came of age and took control of the government, exiling his mother.

It just so happens that Wenceslas Vaclav had spent much of his brief life, going out and doing deeds that likely ran afoul of the typical drama you'd expect in conflicts among the nobility. At least according to the legend preserved in the carol bearing his name, Vaclav honored the tradition of giving alms to the poor—in the case of this carol, on the very day of the Feast of Saint Stephen.

There must have been more to the story, because barely fourteen years into his reign, his brother—remember, I told you there'd be drama here—the evil Boleslaw the Bad invited Vaclav to attend a feast. That gesture, of course, was merely a pretense. Before this event, Boleslaw had arranged for three of his accomplices to assist him in a plot to kill the duke. As the three fell on Vaclav and stabbed him, his brother ran him through with a lance.

Following his death, there was a move to venerate Vaclav as a martyr. During this collective effort to have him declared a saint, writings about the duke attested to his acts of benevolence. Interestingly, his fame was not only asserted in Bohemia, land of his rule, but also in England, the country where the Carol that bears his latinized name was written, many centuries later. Perhaps the prevalence of the Boxing Day tradition in England found its resonance in the hymn praising the acts of the martyred duke of Bohemia.

Now that we know about the history and tradition of this second day of Christmas in the lands of our roots, how can we apply any of this knowledge to our understanding of our own family history? Well, for those who have roots in the British Isles, the answer is self-evident: that is what our forebears did on the day following December 25.

That, however, is not a useful answer for someone with a tree like mine. I went back to my most recently-revised version of my ethnicity results from AncestryDNA to check out just how British my family once was. Not very, according to the readout.

Though a quarter of my genetic makeup comes from the broadly-painted category of "England, Wales, and Northwestern Europe," there is little personal awareness of any English traditions in my history. That part of my family may have originated there, but that memory could be as recent as the 1700s, and in some cases, back as early as 1620. With a near-match of twenty two percent from Eastern Europe, I may have more of an affinity for the duke from Bohemia than any lords of English manors.

And yet, I discover that that very same day—December 26—comes with yet another designation in other parts of the European sphere. In Ireland, for instance, that same day is called Wren Day. While a day set aside for young men to go out and kill little birds may seem an unlikely platform on which to build a holiday which resonates with the populace, there is, of course, more to this story. Part of it, conveniently, links to the broader purpose of the Feast of Saint Stephen: the giving of gifts to people less fortunate. In the case of the Irish Wren Day, in modern times, the money collected to "bury the wren" is often donated to a selected charity.

What was interesting about learning of this to-me unheard-of historic festivity was to see that, even now, Wren Day is still celebrated in pockets of Ireland, mostly in County Kerry and County Limerick, two locations from which my husband derives his own Irish heritage. In addition, not only was Wren Day an Irish custom on December 26, but similar events have been re-enacted in parts of Britain and France, as well as the Isle of Man. More to the point is the detail I discovered about a version of this day as it is honored in Wales, a region represented in my own maternal grandfather's heritage—though there in Wales, the tradition is held on Twelfth Night.

All told, while it was interesting to learn what variations there have been in the Christmas-time celebrations over the centuries and across the continent of my roots, it is apparent why none of these traditions have had enough staying power to be passed down to my generation. For one thing, my forebears have been separated from any memory of those festivities for well more than two centuries—in some cases, by nearly four hundred years, and even in the case of the Irish Wren Day tradition, over one hundred fifty years. For another thing, these were often events that were reinforced by community involvement—a church boxing up alms donated by their community, or a group of neighborhood boys collecting donations to "bury the wren"—something requiring a large number of people living in close proximity and holding to the same custom.

Above all, though, the realization drives home the main point: as fond as Americans may be of reveling in the great variations in their ancestral makeup, we are, above all other hyphenated designations, more American than we claim to be.   


  1. Fascinating history behind Boxing Day and King Wenceslas. Thank you for doing that research, Jacqi, and presenting to us!

    1. It was quite interesting, being able to explore this aspect of our remote history, Cynthia. Glad you enjoyed it. Actually, it's funny to realize that while I always knew the words to the King Wenceslas carol, I had never before connected the dots to the Feast of Stephen, as in the second day of Christmas.

  2. Growing up I thought Boxing Day meant putting away the tree. Later I learned about it in th book Little women . Hope you have a good week. The storm was bad, cancellations, had to drive to Mpls/st Paul hope to get out of here this am.


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