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Boxing Day Without Gloves

Terry Joseph
December 26, 2001

Given its origins, this holiday should be called "Boxes Day," to neutralise potential for ambiguity and especially liberate it from any confusion with a celebration of pugilism.

Ironically, the custom of dedicating a day to the lowly box did have sporting genesis, traceable to Ancient Rome, where money collected thusly at this time of year, sponsored athletic entertainment for the rich.

During the Middle Ages, the English Church added spiritual spin and premiered the poor box, a strategically located donation container with a month-long shelf life. The boxes were opened on December 26, feast day of St Stephen (patron saint of the poor) and the take shared among the destitute.

A third type of box was also synonymous with St Stephenís Day, this one associated with food and drink, a consolation prize awarded by the English elite to servants forced to work through Christmas. On December 26, banquet leftovers were stuffed into boxes and distributed, this condescending and expedient gesture masquerading as magnanimity.

Fact is, servants were of little value to their masters on Boxing Day, as devout landowners invariably went hunting, headed for racetracks, nearby dressage or some other form of equestrian pleasure in homage to St Stephen, who is also patron saint of horses.

Boxing Day became the lower class Christmas. Babyís first could only then be celebrated with the entire family and waifs had reason to worship, as money was being freely disbursed at the venue.

Abetted by the church, the British institutionalised Boxing Day customs throughout its Empire. In 1853, an Anglican priest, John Mason Neale penned the ultimate musical tribute to the status quo; a carol called "Good King Wenceslas".

Not unsurprisingly, Fr Nealeís lyrics avoid any mention of Christmas. For music, he swiped every note from "Tempus adest floridum" (Spring has unwrapped its flowers), a forgotten carol first published in 1582.

A beautiful song resulted although, given its role in rationalising deferral of Christmas to Boxing Day, Fr Neale should have aimed for greater accuracy in his lyrics and spend some time on the identity of a boy who plays the major role in "Good King Wenceslas."

For openers, Wenceslas was not a king but a Duke whose "Good King" title was a sobriquet earned by yielding to an advancing German army intent on pulverising his people.

Born in what is now Czechoslovakia, Wenceslas was the saving grace of a thoroughly dysfunctional family. Granny Ludmilla raised him as a Christian and for her thanks, was murdered by his pagan mother Drahomira, who later conspired with his brother Boleslav to kill the Good King.

Wenceslas is universally recorded as a man of strong moral principles. Bohemiaís most famous martyr and patron saint, his image appeared on coins and his Crown became the symbol of Czech independence. In short, Wenceslas deserved to be the subject of a timeless song.

But the carol is not based on his expanded resume. It is Boxing Day specific, appointing total praise to Wenceslas for helping a peasant dine on the Feast of Stephen, although by Fr Nealeís account, the major work involved was done by a servant. On the evidence, Wenceslas really did nothing but bark instructions to a page.

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither," he shouted and the minion scurried off to do his masterís bidding. And although Wenceslas is advertised as an integral part of the distribution of labour ("Thou and I will see him dine when we bear them hither") it seems the boy not only bore the brunt of the load but was inappropriately dressed for the biting cold.

"Sire, the night is darker now, And the wind blows stronger; Fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer," the boy respectfully complained. He, who worked through Christmas and probably lost his cherished food box to this royal media opportunity, now has to tote logs and a heavy package through knee-deep snow and isnít even identified for posterity.

Instead of offering the boy a redundant robe for warmth, the good king turns motivational speaker while his servant freezes. "Mark my footsteps good my page. Tread thou in them boldly. Thou shalt find the winterís rage freeze thy blood less coldly."

Miraculously, Fr Neale concludes: "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."

All very nice if youíre the one wearing thick animal furs and imbued with authority to order around a freezing boy, then singularly gain a place in historyís songbook.

So if like me and my professional colleagues you work on Christmas, have yourselves a particularly merry Boxing Day and donít become unglued if your effort is no better remembered than that of "whatís-his-name" in "Good King Wenceslas."

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