The name derives from the Anglo-Saxon tradition giving seasonal gifts to less wealthy people and social inferiors. Until their distribution, these gifts were stored in a “Christmas box”, which was opened on December 26, when the contents were distributed.
It used never to be on a Sunday but nowadays it is on St Stephens Day.
St Stephen’s Day
It’s celebrated on 26 December in the Western Church and 27 December in the Eastern Church. Stephen was stoned to death (c. A.D. 34–35) by an infuriated mob encouraged by Saul of Tarsus, the future Saint Paul: “And Saul entirely approved of putting him to death” (8:1). . Stephen’s final speech was presented as accusing the Jews of persecuting prophets who spoke out against their sins:
‘”Which one of the Prophets did your fathers not persecute, and they killed the ones who prophesied the coming of the Just One, of whom now, too, you have become betrayers and murderers.” (7:52)
Whether it was Stephen or James the Just, it hardly seems to matter but the sentiments are right and appropriate to today when anyone uttering unpopular truths is still vilified and shunned and who knows if it will go full circle back to stonings and the like again?
Which brings us to:
Good King Wenceslas
“Good King Wenceslas” is a popular Christmas carol about a king who goes out to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (the second day of Christmas, December 26). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by the heat miraculously emanating from the king’s footprints in the snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907–935), known in the Czech language as Svatý Václav. The lyrics are by English hymnwriter John Mason Neale, and the tune is Scandanavian, from Piae Cantiones.
Václav was considered a martyr and a saint immediately after his death, when a cult of Václav grew up in Bohemia and in England. Within a few decades of Václav’s death four biographies of him were in circulation. These hagiographies had a powerful influence on the High Middle Ages conceptualization of the rex justus, or “righteous king”—that is, a monarch whose power stems mainly from his great piety, as well as from his princely vigor.
Referring approvingly to these hagiographies, the chronicler Cosmas of Prague, writing in about the year 1119, states:
But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.
Anyway, it’s a ripping yarn.
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 him 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, my good 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