Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, December 26, 2004
by Susan Ives
On my first Boxing Day, I plunked myself down in front of the telly, turned to my English hosts and announced, “Golly, in America most people watch football the day after Christmas. Will this be a Foreman-Frazier rematch?”
After a burst of derisive laughter and some low mumbling that sounded suspiciously like “ignorant American twit,” someone replied with ill-grace, “It’s not that kind of boxing.”
The reputation of the English for unfailing politeness is exaggerated.
Well, what kind of boxing is it?
“It’s the day we throw out the empty boxes from our Christmas prezzies,” someone volunteered.
“It’s a custom of presenting boxes containing money to service people, like the postman,” contradicted another guest.
“Idiot!” countered another self-proclaimed expert, demonstrating that insults were not reserved for naïve Americans. “In the old days the poor went from house to house carrying small clay boxes, collecting coins.”
“It’s a medieval tradition,” insisted a fourth. “It was the day that the priests opened the alms boxes and distributed charity to the poor.”
“And the feast day of St. Stephen,” another added.
We were on familiar ground. I sang, softly:
“Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen …”
Everyone chimed in: “When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.”
Wenceslas was a 10th-century king of Bohemia. As the carol recounts, he and his page were out and about when they came across a starving peasant gathering winter fuel for his family.
“Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear him thither,” Wenceslas decided.
It was a long trudge back to the castle to gather food and fuel, even a longer journey back to the peasant’s distant hovel. The page could walk no farther in the bitter cold.
“Follow me,” Wenceslas told him, and his footsteps emitted a saintly heat that warmed the servant.
St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, stoned to death outside Jerusalem. He was a deacon in the early Christian church, chosen by the apostles to help look after widows and the poor.
I began to see a pattern. Wenceslas. Stephen. Boxing Day. The day after Christmas is a day for caring for the poor!
We have our work cut out for us. UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, released its 2005 report on the state of the world’s children earlier this month:
640 million children do not have adequate shelter
500 million children have no access to sanitation
400 million children do not have access to safe water
270 million children have no access to health care services
90 million children are severely food-deprived.
But we do not have to travel far afield to find those who lack life’s basic needs.
According to the latest report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, hunger and homelessness continued to rise this year, especially among families with children requesting food assistance and emergency shelter.
Nationwide, requests for emergency food assistance increased an average of 14 percent over the past year. San Antonio reported a 21 percent increase.
According to San Antonio Metropolitan Ministries, there are more than 25,000 homeless people in San Antonio: 49 percent are families and 56 percent of those are children.
Imitating Wenceslas one day a year will not alleviate this problem. Distributing alms on Boxing Day will not alleviate this problem. It will take political will as well as individual charity. But it’s a start.
The Wenceslas carol ends with a blessing for those who care for the poor. We can start today, on the Feast of Stephen.