Feast of Stephen

Today is Boxing Day here in England, and in much of “the British World.” The term is relatively new (19th Century), but the practices linked to it are much older. It revolves around the idea of “Christmas Boxes” which were given to formal servants or others who had provided “service” such as postmen, etc.

Christmas Boxes often contained bonuses, small gifts, and often small parcels old clothes or leftover food from the more “well to do” benefactors’ Christmas celebrations.

This spirit of giving is linked to the day in its more Christian manifestation: St Stephen’s Day.  Many people in the English speaking world know of it as “The feast of Stephen,” as mentioned in the carol Good King Wenceslas.

Wenceslas was known for his acts of charity and alms. In the song he is depicted as  wandering through the snow to give relief to the down trodden,


Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay ‘round about
Deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither;
Thou and I will see him dine,
When we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together,
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, good my page,
Tread thou in them boldly;
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

(lyrics source: https://www.christmasmusicsongs.com)

This giving of oneself ultimately follows the example of Stephen himself, who gave his life in service of God.  He is noted as the first Christian martyr, and his example of piety is a model for us.  We may never be called upon to “lay down our lives for a friend,” in a literal manner, but we can give of ourselves and our resources, as did Wenceslas, and the “box-givers” of the past.