Today is the second day of the 12 Days of Christmas, a day with multiple personalities as we will see. We will celebrate with an English carol about a Bohemian princeling/saint sung by some Irish lads.
The Brits and the residents of other former pink blotches on Queen Victoria’s globe like many Americans will spend today storming the malls and shops on what is usually the busiest retail sales day of the year. Disgruntled gift recipients hit the refund and exchange desks others will spend the gift cards and even old fashion cash. But unlike most Yanks they will be doing it on an official National Holiday as a paid day off. Officially December 26 is just another Bank Holiday. But Boxing Day is a treasured tradition with long and deep roots.
|On Boxing Day an early Victorian middle class family gives the postman a small gift. The urchin sweeping the snow will also get something for his efforts.|
The celebration in the British Isles owes its origins to the aristocracy, gentry, and wealthy townsmen and their households. The master would give presents to his servants and staff, who would also have the day off work. Sometimes the master’s family would even serve meals to their inferiors! Needless to say, this custom was very popular among the servants, and sometimes observed resentfully by those unaccustomed to either manual labor or generosity.
It is also a remnant of an ancient tradition that may—or may not—go back to the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, when there was a carnival-like turn around with slaves lording over masters for a day. The tradition continued into the Middle Ages on into Elizabethan times, where it took on the wild excesses of street revelry.
That revelry doomed the whole season when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans took over. Eventually, Boxing Day restored a controlled dollop of the old festival. The Church of England gave a religious cover to the day as St. Stephen’s Day.
Stephen was the Deacon of Jerusalem the earliest days of Christianity known for his charities to the poor. He was also the first Christian martyr, stoned to death for allegedly preaching the Trinity in the Temple.
|Good King Wenceslas was celebrated on this English bisquet tin.|
The familiar carol Good King Wenceslas is a St. Stephen’s Day song meant for street begging. In Ireland, the day is still officially called St. Stephen’s Day.
It is also known there as Wren’s Day there. Boys in homemade hats and costumes carry a caged wren—or sometime a dead one pierced by a holly sprig—proclaiming it the king of the birds and begging for treats. Once a fading country custom, in the cities men now re-enact it—often as a pub crawl.
In the Bank Holidays Act of 1871, Parliament recognized Boxing Day as a Bank Holiday—an officially recognized public holiday. While time off from work was not originally mandatory, but has become nearly universal.
The holiday spread across the Empire and is still official in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other Commonwealth countries. In South Africa it was re-named The Day of Goodwill in 1994.
Today small gifts are still given trades people and service workers, but in Britain the day has become all about shopping. It is the biggest shopping day of the year and has been compared to American Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Stores mark the day with huge sales.
It is also a day of sport. Football—that’s soccer to Americans—and Rugby leagues hold full schedules of games, teams usually playing their most serious rivals. There are also prestige horse races and the country gentry mount fox hunts—these days due to a bitterly resented law, sans fox. The toffs are no longer allowed to chase real fox, but still get to ride to the hounds chasing a scented bait.
The carol Good King Wenceslas is most closely associated with St. Stephen’s Day along with the street begging We Wish You a Merry Christmas and The Wren’s Song in Ireland.
Good King Wenceslas is a Christmas carol that tells a story of a Bohemian ruler going on a journey and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following his master’s footprints through the deep snow.
|The carol was celebrated on this British stamp.|
The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia who was murdered and martyred in 935. Wenceslas was considered a martyr and saint immediately after his death, when a cult grew up in Bohemia and in England. Within a few decades, four biographies of him were in circulation which had a powerful influence on the High Middle Ages concept of the rex justus (righteous king), a monarch whose power stems mainly from his great piety as well as his princely power.
In 1853, English hymn writer John Mason Neale wrote the lyrics to Good King Wenceslas in collaborating with his music editor Thomas Helmore. The carol first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide. Neale’s word were set to the melody of a 13th-century spring carol Tempus adest floridum (The time is near for flowering) first published in the 1582 Finnish collection Piae Cantiones. The very old origins of the melody give the song an appropriately medieval cast that makes it popular with modern madrigal singers.
|The melody was taken from the spring time carol Temps adis floridiun published in Finland in 1582.|
The song has been recorded many times notably by Mel Tormé and Canadian Celtic singer Loreena McKennitt. It was modernized with a synthesizer and orchestra instrumental version by Mannheim Steamroller. But the most popular version in Britain and Ireland is by the Canadian/Irish folk quartet The Irish Rovers.