One of my favorite Christmas carols is “Good King Wenceslas.” It has a rousing, easy-to-sing melody and tells a dramatic story. I especially like the verse in which, with each step, the king’s feet heat the ground, melting the snow and leaving a warm place where his page can walk. But what I could never understand as a child was why this song was a Christmas carol, since it mentions no holiday but “the Feast of Stephen.”
It wasn’t until I moved here, to Bern, that I learned that December 26 is a holiday called Stephanstag in memory of St. Stephen, who is classified by the Church as one of the earliest Christian martyrs. I knew that for the English, Canadians, and Australians, among others, this day is Boxing Day, but I didn’t know until I became a Swiss that December 26, whether called Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day, is traditionally celebrated by giving gifts to people poorer than oneself. Suddenly, the words to “Good King Wenceslas” made sense.
Stephanstag isn’t the only new holiday I discovered when I moved to Switzerland. In Liechtenstein and some cantons of Switzerland, January 2 is celebrated as Berchtoldstag. There is, however, no St. Berchtold (although this is a Germanic male name, possibly meaning “shining ruler”). There’s evidence of the day being special as far back as the fourteenth century, but no one is sure why. One theory is that the name of the holiday comes from the archaic word “berchten,” which meant to walk around, asking for food.
If that’s true, then it seems to me both December 26 and January 2 have to do with poor people making sure that, once the rich have finished celebrating on Christmas or New Year’s Day, the poor are not forgotten. It’s the 99% of the past thousand-or-so years making sure that the 1% pay at least a tiny part of their dues.
My family is celebrating today by inviting a good friend, who is not poor, to dinner. We’re having rabbit stewed in mustard and white wine with carrots and mushrooms, served over noodles. This is not a traditional meal, neither for the Swiss nor for us, just something we all like that isn’t so common that a guest might have just eaten it with family on Christmas Day.
Here’s to feeding people, on holidays and other days, in the spirit of King Wenceslas. Happy Stephanstag!
Tim Ladwig, the illustrator of the King Wenceslas book cover at the start of this post, has won many awards for his work. The carol is based on the legend of Václav, a tenth century duke of Bohemia who became a saint.