Originally Published: December 27, 2017 5:59 a.m.
Good King Wencelas: 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 you know 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 food and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither, You and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither …” “Therefore, Christian men, be sure, while God’s gifts possessing, You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.
Ever hear of Boxing Day?
If you’re not of British origin, you might never have had cause to learn about the holiday that dates back as far as the 17th Century, and appears to be rooted in the religious observance of St. Stephen’s Day.
Preparing a cup of English tea in his Prescott kitchen, a native of Northern England and renowned world travel Roy H. Smith breaks into an impromptu version of the Christmas carol, “Good King Wencelas.”
The 1850s Christmas carol speaks to the origin of “Boxing Day,” a time when the wealthy and privileged of a community box up gifts for the poor and those who they depend on throughout the year – the seamstress, the butler, the milkman, the nanny, the laundress, even the undertaker.
“I remember singing that song as a boy,” Smith said.
In modern times, observers of this day will deliver money or gifts to those they depend on to make their lives easier: the mailman, the pizza delivery person, the dry cleaning associate, the florist, the waiter or waitress at their favorite restaurant, the newspaper carrier.
A historian, educator and world expedition leader, Smith recently researched the holiday that coincides with St. Stephen’s Day, a religious observance the day after Christmas that honors the first Christian martyr. Part of the homage to St. Stephen that dates back at least to the mid-1600s was the continuation of his ministry to the poor and disenfranchised of the early church: those donations were often kept in locked boxes.
In 1871, Queen Victoria officially obtained approval by Parliament to set aside Boxing Day as a bank holiday, or public holiday, still observed in much of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, all part of what once was the British Commonwealth.
As a boy from an impoverished family living in a 400-year-old farmhouse in the village of Rivington, Smith said his family’s tradition was to honor the holiday by giving a few eggs to their paperboy who had to hike a couple miles to reach their home.
“And they were precious,” said Smith, 76, who explained that farmers relied on eggs, livestock and produce from their farms as currency in those years of economic deprivation.
Today, the tradition is observed somewhat differently, although there tends to be a continued notion of giving to charity, and offering monetary gifts to people in the trades and service industries, Smith said.
As with any holiday, some festive events often now accompany the day.
Some families celebrate “Boxing Day” as a continuation of the Christmas season, including preparing a special dish known as “Bubble and Squeak,” leftover Christmas foods that when cooked “bubble and squeak.”
Of course, “Boxing Day” as a public holiday has also become a commercial success: in England it is considered one of the biggest shopping days of the holiday season.
Like what has happened to other holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, Smith said he is “appalled” days intended to spark giving and thankfulness “has been lost.”
Though he is not a Christian, Smith said he is a believer in doing good for others – he might not do it with a “box” once a year but tries to finds ways throughout the year to honor the lyrics of the Christmas carol he can still recite from memory.
“We should be thinking about acknowledging the people who do services for us, and always show compassion for others,” Smith said.