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, gathering winter fuel.
St. Stephen’s Day is the feast or festival day when the Christian religion celebrates the life and martyrdom by stoning of Stephen, the so-called first martyr of Christianity (the Bible book of Acts Chapter 7 records the event). For Victorian Christmas traditions, St. Stephen’s day was a sort of “poor man’s Christmas” where the needs of lower-class people would receive gifts and food from their richer, higher born countrymen.
That’s sort of what’s going on in the carol Good King Wenceslas quoted above. The king is out and about and finds a poor man who needs firewood. He and his faithful pageboy give alms to the man in the spirit of generosity and charity. At the end of the song, the king reminds his page and us that those who give to others are blessed by the giving. The story–and the song–are based on a real medieval king from Central Europe who, apparently, was kind and generous.
As we have looked at in other stories, the Victorians did much to help create modern Christmas traditions, and that’s also the case here. The story and song became popular after an Englishman named John Neale penned them in 1853. But the St. Stephen’s theme runs a bit deeper still here.
You see, servants–the poor–had to work during most holidays. Christmastime for maids, butlers, charwomen, and cooks meant taking care of their employers and/or landowners first. That also meant, of course, that Christmas Day meant little to these working women and men (and children, too, often). The wealthy folks’ holiday was only another day at the proverbial office for them.
Some say it was Queen Victoria who, mindful of the devotion her armies of servants showed by foregoing their personal holiday celebrations to insure that hers and her family’s was wonderful, first decided to put together packets of small presents and left over food from the royal celebrations and some small bit of money and gift the servants with these things.
Now, there are several examples of this happening much before Victoria, but she seems to have popularized the practice on the day after Christmas. On the Feast of Stephen, the giving of boxed goods to the poorer people. And while the modern observance seems to have more to do with shopping and after-Christmas sales at the chain stores, that wasn’t the origin of the sentiment. No, it was meant to be much in the line of what Good King Wenceslas intended.
The Brits call it Boxing Day.