Thursday, December 27, 2012

LID: #BoxingDay And Wenceslas

Boxing Day Hunt in Cowbridge
 by Michael Gwyther-Jones

December 26

Boxing Day

Ah, the day after Christmas. In the United States is the day you stand in long lines to return all your unwanted presents. Yet for other families, today is Boxing Day. Boxing Day? What is that? Is that a day when everyone can go out and do some boxing? Not quite. Americans have long forgotten this British holiday. 

Boxing Day is celebrated on December 26th by families in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and other Commonwealth countries. It had been a national holiday since 1871 as a way for the upperclass to give to food, money and other goods to the poor so they could enjoy the holiday season. It coincedes with the Feast of Saint Stephen. Saint Stephen was an early church deacon who was martyred in 34 BC. You can learn more about him from here.  In Ireland, the Feast of Saint Stephens also conincides with Wren's Day. 

During the Victorian Era, Boxing Day was celebrated by the gentry class by releasing their servants for the day so they could spend time with their own families. The gentry would also give gifts of food, money and other goods to the poor. Afterwards, the gentry would go on a fox hunt in the country. Fox hunting originated in the United Kingdom during the 16th century. It was banned in Scotland in 2002. England and Wales banned the sport in November of 2004. Not everyone agrees with the ban of Fox Hunting since it has been a long standing tradition for British culture. 

Wenceslas I of Bohemia

Although the holiday was nationally recognized during Queen Victoria's reign it was already known. The origins of Boxing Day lie with a 10th century Bohemian duke named Wenceslas I. 

Wenceslas I was born in 907 AD to Duke Vratislaus (c. 888 – c. 921) and Duchess Drahomíra (877/90–died after 935). To understand his unyielding Christian faith you have to understand his family's background. 

Christening of Duke Borivoj by
Václav Ignác Leopold Markovský (1789–1846)
US Public Domain
His paternal grandparents were Bořivoj I (c. 852 – c. 889) and Ludmila (860 – 15 September 921).  Bořivoj I  had declared himself as soverign prince, aka Duke, over all the Bohemians (Czechs)  in 870 AD and became the founder of the Přemyslids Dynasty.  Two years later,  Moravian King Svatopluk I dispatched Saints Cyril and Methodius to convert the Bohemians to Christianity. Bořivoj I and Ludmila set an example for their people by converting away from their pagan beliefs to Christianity. 
They were baptized in 883 AD by Methodius. After which, Bořivoj I became evangelical about his people's conversion. His new found faith did not sit well with his people and they revolted against him under the leadership of his kinsmen, Strojmír. The couple were forced out of their county until 885 when Bořivoj I regained control with the help of Svatopluk of Moravia. Bořivoj I ruled until his death four years later. At the time of his death his sons were too young to rule. In his absence, Svatopluk of Moravia, ruled as regent over Bohemia. Ludmila retired to Tetín Castle with her children. 

In 894 AD, Bořivoj I and Ludmila eldest son, Spytihněv I (c. 875 - 915),  inherited his father's throne. He ruled over Bohemia until his death in 915 AD. During his reign, he broke the connection between his country and Moravia. According to  the Annales Fuldenses, in 900AD, Bohemians aided the Bavarians in attacking Moravia. After Spytihněv I's death his younger brother, Vratislaus, became Duke of Bohemia. Wenceslas was eight years old when his father ascended to the throne. Wenceslas' mother,  Drahomíra, was not a Christian although tradition states she had converted when she married Vratislaus. She had been a princess from a pagan tribe of Havolans. Wenceslas had two siblings, a brother known as Boleslaus I the Cruel (915 – 15 July, 967 or 972 and a sister named Střezislava (died 987).

Murder of Saint Ludmila in Chronicle of so called Dalimil.
Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia is depicted as child.
14th Century
US Public Domain
Vratislaus established the Saint George Basilica in Prague and raised his children his faith. He was killed in battle against the Magyars in 921 AD. Wenceslas was thirteen years old and too young to take his father's throne.  Ludmila was given custody of her grandson and regency over the kingdom. Wenceslas was known at that time for being a pious, humble young man who was very intelligent and highly educated. Ludmila ruled Bohemia in his stead from her home at Tetín Castle, where she continued to raise him in the Christian faith.  Drahomíra was furious that she had lost control of her son that she arranged two noblemen to execute her mother-in-law and return her son. On September 15, 921, Ludmila was strangled with her own veil. She was buried in St. Michael's in Tetín and canonized soon after as the patron saint of Bohemia. 

After Drahomíra regained control of her son she had tried to convert him to her pagan beliefs. Her reign over Bohemia during his regency was so cruel and arbitrary that when the Bohemians urged Wenceslas to overthrow her. Wenceslas came to throne when he was eighteen years old in 924 or 925 AD. He exiled his mother and defeated the rebellious duke of Kouřim. Wenceslas was an excellent Christian king. He encouraged German missionaries into his kingdom, had churches built, founded a rotunda in Prague castle consecrated to Saint Vitus, and took a vow of personal poverty. Chronicler Cosmas of Prague (c. 1045 – October 21, 1125) wrote in 1119 AD:

Wenceslas by: Thomas Quine
"But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched."

Unfortunately Wenceslas' vow of poverty could only last a few years. In 935 AD, the German king Heinrich I the Fowler (r. 919-936) invaded Bohemia. He forced Wenceslas to start paying him a tribute as an act of submission. This act made Wenceslas' pagan subjects upset and they soon rallied behind his brother, Boleslaus I the Cruel, to overthrow him.  After devising the plot to kill his older brother, Boleslaus invited him to join him at Stará Boleslav for a feast in honor of Saints Cosmas and Damian. The brothers had been quarrelling earlier and Wenceslas accepted thinking it was a peace offering. On September 28, 919, Boleslaus' companions, Tira, Čsta and Hněvsa, murdered Wenceslas on the church stairs. Wenceslas' loyal servant, Podevin, had tried to avenge his master's death but was captured and executed. Boleslaus gained the throne. 

Wenceslas became known as a martyr and saint immediately after his death. His feast day is September 28th and has been celebrated since 985 in Bohemia. He is known as King Wenceslas because the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I conferred the title and regal dignity upon him. 

Good King Wenceslas - The Carol

John M. Neale

Although King Wenceslas was a Christian king who used his wealth to show charity to others he did not start Boxing Day, instead he was the inspiration behind the holiday and the carol. The believed Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas was composed by John M. Neale (1818-1866). He was well known for adapting many medieval hymns that were no longer usable in their original settings. His other well known song is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. You can learn more about how his song Good King Wenceslas and how it came to be by visiting this link.

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