Friday, 27 December 2019

Feeding the Fires of Charity & Justice ~ the Second Day of Christmas

Good King Wenceslas

I wrote a few days ago that Christmastide once lasted until Candlemas on February 2nd. This was shortened to the 'Twelve Days of Christmas', or Twelvetide, by the Council of Tours in 567 CE. They also filled each day with saints' feast days, whilst declaring the first three days of the year to be a time of strict fasting, both designed to prevent Christians, which was more or less everyone at that time, indulging in the merrymaking associated with Christmas and New Year.

Nevertheless, Twelvetide is full of interest and, although many of us now use it as a day to recover from eating far too much chocolate,
the Second Day of Christmas, December 26th, is almost wonder-full as Christmas Day in terms of tradition.

Here in the British Isles, it is primarily known as Boxing Day. There are several competing theories for how the day got its name. One is that it was the day on which tradespeople, postmen, and delivery boys, would receive a 'Christmas box' of money and/or presents from those they provided services to. The term dates back to the 17th Century and Samuel Pepys mentions it in his diary entry for 19th December 1663. It seems that this tradition is connected to an even older one where servants would be allowed to visit their families on the day after Christmas Day and would be sent off with boxes of presents and leftover food.

Boxing Day 

This sharing of what we have, and acknowledging that we often have more than we need, echoes the medieval tradition of alms boxes, which were placed in areas of worship to collect donations for the poor. As an aside, might I recommend the film 'The Man Who Invented Christmas', an imagining of the six weeks which Charles Dickens spent writing 'A Christmas Carol'. The film ends by telling us that not only did the book bring huge renewed interest in Christmas itself but also caused a massive increase in charitable donations! Returning to alms boxes, these may have again echoed the Roman/Early Christian tradition of leaving metal collection boxes outside churches to collect donations for the poor on the Feast of St Stephen, which falls on December 26th.

15th Century alms box

Boxing Day has been a bank holiday in the UK since 1871 and, if not used as a recovery day, it is often seen as an opportunity for shopping in the Boxing Day sales; accumulating even more for ourselves, rather than sharing what we already have with others as tradition dictates.

Returning to St Stephen's Day, this is a national holiday in many countries regardless of whether Boxing Day is observed there. According to tradition, Stephen (5-34 CE), whose name means 'wreath' or 'crown', was the first Christian martyr. He was a deacon in the Early Christian church and was stoned to death in Jerusalem for denouncing the Jewish authorities of the time. He is mentioned in Acts 6 as one of those given the task of ensuring a fairer distribution of alms to Greek-speaking widows, who it was felt were being slighted in favour of their Hebrew-speaking sisters. Stephen was also part of a group which organised the distribution of food and charitable donations to poorer members of the Christian community, a tradition continued for many hundreds of years through the collection of alms for the poor on his feast day.

This is echoed, of course, in the popular carol, Good King Wenceslas, in which a king braves a winter storm to give alms to a poor peasant on St Stephen's Day. We might also remember the king's page who, in the freezing weather, was offered warmth by walking in hus master's footsteps; a better justification for feudalism we might never see! But, of course, it also reminds us that we can't do life alone. Sometimes we all, whether rich or poor, need to 'shelter in the footsteps,' of another.

The source legend of the 1853 carol by John Mason Neale is that of Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, 907-935 CE. Immediately after his death a cult dedicated to him rose up in both Bohemia and England. Within a few decades four biographies, or hagiographies, of his life were in curculation praising his piety. Indeed, it was partly these which inspired the enduring image of the 'righteous king'. It was said that Wenceslas, rose from his bed every night and travelled bare-footed giving alms to the poor, to widows, those in prison, and anyone he found in need, so much so that he was considered a 'father of all the wretched.'

Good King Wenceslas  

Whilst we might bemoan the ineffectual nature of charitable giving in challenging the systems of injustice that create its need, and rightly so, there is no doubt that the image of Wenceslas, like Dickens' story of 'A Christmas Carol', has inspired many to acts of kindness and, until justice comes, those of us with more do share some responsibility to share what we have. St Stephen's Day, and Boxing Day, are a reminder of that and may provide a quiet and contemplative space in the busyness of the season to consider where we ourselves take our stand on the line between charity and justice.

In a world where our determination to help others is turned against us, used as justification by those in authority for doing less and less to support the vulnerable, how might we negotiate this landscape with our hearts and hope intact? Which fire; justice or charity, do we choose to feed, and how might we ensure that those around us who have less than we are warmed by both?

We might begin by seeing charity not as an end in itself, as we are encouraged to do, but as a vital part of making reparations to those with less in a world where many of us benefit from the divide between rich and poor, even if that might mean that we ourselves are less protected from the metaphorical 'winter cold'. Charity at its best is justice, not kindness, in action. We might remember on his feast day that Stephen did not content himself with redistribution of wealth. He also spoke truth to power, and died for it. No cosy, soporific, charity for him. This is about what's right. The second Day of Christmas reminds us.

* In Ireland, the Isle of Mann, and parts of Southern France, St Stephen's Day is also 'Wren Day'. I will be writing all about that in another post.


Twelvetide ~

History of Christmastide ~

Boxing Day ~

St Stephen ~

St Stephen's Day ~

Good King Wenceslas ~

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