December 20, 2013
This article appeared in the December 20, 2013 issue of the Catholic Star Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Camden.
Each year, there’s a lot of talk about “keeping Christ in Christmas.” We are told – and we tell others – not to allow all the gifts we give and receive to distract our attention from the Father’s gift of his Son in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Like many of you, I proudly place the “Keep Christ in Christmas” magnet on my car in December. Nevertheless, I am not content with merely raising the issue. I propose the revival of an English custom, in connection with a Catholic feast, as the instrument for acting on our good words.
The English custom is Boxing Day, celebrated on December 26. There are two theories of its origin but both relate it to charity. The first is that servants who had worked on Christmas received boxed gifts from their masters the following day. The second is that English churches opened their poor boxes the day after Christmas to distribute the alms which had accumulated in Advent.
The feast of St. Stephen is also celebrated on December 26. St. Stephen is mostly known as the first Christian martyr. He was also one of the first seven deacons, ordained by the Apostles to care for the needs of the Christian community, particularly widows (see Acts 6:1-6).
The Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” suggests a connection between the two traditions. The king is enjoying the beauty of the winter snows “on the feast of Stephen” “when a poor man came in sight gath’ring winter fuel.” Braving the strong winds and freezing temperatures, the king retrieves meat and wine for the man. The carol ends with an appeal to the listener: “Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”
Perhaps the earthly example and heavenly intercession of St. Stephen inspired King Wenceslas, English masters, and all good Christians to give particular attention to the needs of the poor on December 26. Such charity is even more needed today to challenge the commercialization of December 25.
Many people have applauded Pope Francis’ desire for “a church that is poor and for the poor.” It is easy for us to wish another to be so generous that he becomes poor. It is easy for us to wish change that must be done by others. We who belong to the Church cannot think that Francis’ vision can be realized by its leaders alone. The pope’s challenge is for all of us. A renewed tradition of charity on the feast of St. Stephen may be a powerful witness to the world that the Church – head and members all – is heeding Francis’ challenge.
I humbly propose this practice. On December 26, total your cash gifts and, if you received one, your Christmas bonus. Give a portion of your total to a Catholic charity that serves the poor. Avoid the temptation of making this gift without cutting your spending. Do not drawn down your emergency fund or sacrifice a contribution to a college or retirement fund. Sacrifice your discretionary spending. If you received a number of gift cards, donate an appropriate one to your parish or a local St. Vincent de Paul Society so that they can pass it on to someone in need. This practice will both curb the consumerism of December 25 and contribute to the relief of the poor on December 26. Beginning this year, I will tithe on my Christmas gifts and write a check to Joseph’s House in Camden. Whatever your choice of charity, I hope you will join me.