St Stephen’s Day is Boxing Day in Honour of Martyrs

“Why do we call the day after Christmas Day ‘Boxing Day’?” If you’ve never been able to answer that question then this article will be helpful to you.

St Stephen’s Day is observed by some churches on December 26, and that gives rise to the title of Boxing Day – which I’ll explain later.

For the past 150 years this day has also been associated with “Good King Wenceslas” who “looked out on the Feast of Stephen”. That account of King Wenceslas comes to us from the lyrics of a Christmas carol which gives a fictitious account of an historical character.

History tells us that Wenceslas was a Bohemian king who was martyred by his pagan brother about AD 930. St Wenceslas is the patron saint of what used to be Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia – two separate countries).

The ‘Feast of Stephen’ was set aside by churches to commemorate the death of Stephen the deacon, the church’s first martyr, as recorded in Acts 7. Stephen, as a deacon, was assigned the task of caring for the needy. The Apostles did not want to become entangled in that task, but needed to concentrate on preaching and praying.

So the Feast of Stephen celebrated this first martyr and charitable care for those in need.

It was John Mason Neale, ‘the prince of hymn translators’, and an Anglican vicar of the nineteenth century, who gave us the carol “Good King Wenceslas” in 1853, to exemplify generosity. Wenceslas was a martyr, like Stephen, and he was a charitable man. Neale sought to bring these factors together in a song to celebrate the significance of St Stephen’s Day.

The song has no basis in fact, but was one of Neale’s original compositions … written 1000 years after Wenceslas lived – and who may, or may not, have looked out on the Feast of Stephen!

And because Stephen, the New Testament deacon, had been employed in caring for the poor, it became customary for the early Christians to open the church alms-boxes and distribute the benefits therein to those in need on St Stephen’s Day. Hence, this first day after Christmas Day is the day for opening the boxes and distributing charity – and is now referred to as “Boxing Day”.

This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

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