Happy Holidays. Today’s the big day — that one day we eagerly await as soon as the Halloween decorations are taken down — the Feast of Stephen or Boxing Day or Wren Day.
St. Stephen lived in the first century and was stoned to death c. 34 AD by a mob led by Paul (when he was still Saul). In Acts it says:
Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak words of
blasphemy against Moses and against God.” So they stirred up the people and the elders and the
teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. For we have heard
him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed
down to us.”
Since Stephen was the first martyr, he’s referred to as a protomartyr which is a word we only get to use once a year.
“Good King Wenceslas” is the one, certified banger/club carol of St. Stephen’s Day. The tune was originally written for the song, “Tempus Adest Floridum” (“It is time for flowering”), a 13th-century spring carol first published in 1582’s Swede/Finn co-production, Piae Cantiones.
What do we know about King Wenceslas? Well, he was a good king, for starters, right? *enh!*
Wenceslas I was a lowly duke — the duke of Bohemia. His name was Wenceslas, right? He actually went by “Svatý Václav.” He ruled from 921-935 AD. His father was a Bohemian and his mother was a member of the Hevelli tribe, another Slavic people that lived in what’s now eastern Germany. His brother, Boleslaus, conspired with a group of noblemen to rub him out and those cads, Tira, Čsta and HněvsaIf, ambushed and murdered him while he was on his way to church.
Good King Wenceslas (1994, full movie but poor quality)
If you’ve never really listened to the lyrics to “Good King Wenceslas,” they deal with him going out on St. Stephen’s Day to give alms to the poor. The duke’s page is freezing to death but Wenceslas’s footprints provide magical warmth. Another fact about Wenceslas is that an army of knights are hidden inside the mountain, Blaník and they will re-awaken if the Slavs are ever threatened. At that time, an animated statue of the king will lead the army to Charles Bridge. There, the statue will stumble and reveal the Bruncvík‘s magical sword which will be used to smite the Slav’s enemies. Two things: Why didn’t this happen when the Soviets invaded and how come there are no prog or power metal songs about it?
If you live in the Anglosphere, then you don’t need to have Boxing Day explained… unless you’re from the USA or Ireland, the only Anglophonic countries to not widely celebrate it. On Boxing Day, you give a gift to your inferiors. It sound very patronizing and classist, very English in other words. “Oh it’s nothing. Just a little something I, your better, got for you, one of the lower orders.” Even the English must’ve realized this seemed a bit condescending because now they just use to day to take advantage of after-Christmas sales, to buy stuff for themselves. Most theories about Boxing Day’s origins sound incredibly unlikely and have the stink of speculation, but I’ll offer my own, nonetheless: Remember the Bohemian Duke going out to give to the poor on St. Stephen’s Day with the sun practically shining out of his behind (warming his inferior)? If the parallels of that story to a toff giving a bottle of whiskey to the mailman doesn’t seem analogous, then I don’t know what does.
In Wales they, of course, have their own peculiar brand of St. Stephen’s Day tomfoolery. On what they stubbornly insist on calling Gŵyl San Steffan, it is customary to bleed the livestock and slash female servants (and those that slept in) with holly branches. Who can explain the Welsh?
Why no St. Stephen’s Day in Ireland or the Isle of Man? Maybe because, like the Welsh, the Irish and Manx like to be different. On Lá an Dreoilín, or Wren Day, they get on some Wicker Man type ish. You think, “Oh, Wren’s Day. They must venerate wrens on this day.” Actually, traditionally on this day mummers known as Wrenboys or Strawboys got together and hunted down the tiny, defenseless creatures. Then they’d go around with the dead wren’s tiny corpse fastened to the end of a pole, singing songs and making merry. See, wrens have a reputation for treachery in Irish culture and legend has it that wrens betrayed Irish forces during a Viking attack and so the Irish on this day kill the wrens out of revenge. By the 1930s, wrens were almost extinct. That’ll learn those traitorous wrens!
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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