Sunday, December 26, 2010

Boxing Day Revealed!

We Americans have a tendency to go all-in on our holidays, single-mindedly hyping their approach, feasting ourselves into a stupor, and spending several subsequent days in a state of recovery.  Put too many celebrations too close together, and you're liable to send the average American into an acute state of holiday toxicity.  And so it was, with the abnormal proliferation of holidays in the waning days of the year, that Americans at last recognized their limits, and drew a line in the sand.  Unlike the bulk of the Anglophone world, we do not celebrate Boxing Day; indeed, we scarcely know what it is.  As a seeker of truth, I find these conditions unacceptable.  After consulting a series of historical, sociological, and alchemical texts, I have put together a brief history of Boxing Day, the sort of frank, accurate description you might get if you would just ask a Canadian "what's up with Boxing Day?"  Probably even better!

Boxing Day occurs on December 26th, which is pretty risky business: as the desperate me-too! status of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa attest, Christmas will suffer no serious competition.  Nevertheless, Boxing Day has a long and rich tradition of playing second fiddle, dating back to the Middle Ages.  In those days it was known as the Feast of St. Stephen, and it still is if you're that special kind of Catholic who knows when all the Feast Days are.  St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, having been stoned to death by an angry mob led by Saul of Tarsus, who would later convert to Christianity and become known as St. Paul.  How Sts. Stephen and Paul get along in heaven is not presently known, but one can safely assume they attend different holiday parties.

St. Stephen carries the title of protomartyr, which sounds very impressive until you remember that the first person to actually die in the name of the faith was Jesus himself, who of course outranks Stephen according to every conceivable metric.  And of course, while stoning is undoubtedly an unpleasant way to go, it is perhaps a step or two in wrenching agony and terror from crucifixion.  Christian hagiography is chock full of creative tortures and executions: upside-down crucifixions, flayings, spiked wheels, and even a burning, brazen bull.  Compared to these, stoning seems almost humane.  Almost.

Nevertheless, for centuries Christians gave props to Stephen for having the stones, as it were, to be the first man to follow Christ down the path of death for the cause of God, and decided that he should likewise follow Jesus in perpetuity.  That they chose to celebrate his martyrdom on the day after the Savior's birth, rather than the day after his death, may not make a whole lot of sense on the surface.  Presumably it all comes together after a couple of egg nogs.  In any event, St. Stephen is still given his due in countries such as Ireland, Catalonia, and Hungary; even Americans are vaguely aware of his feast day, at least those who know the lyrics to "Good King Wenceslas."  Sadly, most Americans cannot even bother to remember the words of their own national anthem, and so Stephen's last shot at trivial relevance in American culture is a pathetic misfire.

Today, St. Stephen's Day is celebrated in Britain, Canada, Australia, and other commonwealth lands as Boxing Day.  The Christological elements of Christmas were long ago usurped by commercial interests, and so Stephen dutifully follows Christ once more: the "boxes" are filled with material goods, and Boxing Day is "celebrated" by relentless, bloodthirsty consumerism.  In effect, Boxing Day is a parasitic interloper, a Black Friday variant that has replaced St. Stephen in the hearts of an increasingly irreligious public.  Much as the early Christians commandeered pagan feasts to mark their own liturgical calendars, capitalism has taken hold of Christianity's most sacred days and used them to sell appliances and consumer electronics.  Stephen, for his part, is probably just happy that the 26th of December is still marked off at all.

This year, however, Boxing Day does NOT fall on December 26th.  Because Christmas and Boxing Day are both bank holidays, their observation is shifted when either should fall on a weekend.  With Christmas on a Saturday this year, the corresponding bank holiday will be tomorrow, the 27th.  Likewise, Boxing Day will be held on the 28th.  The 26th will presumably be known to most people simply as "Sunday."

Next year, Stephen.  Next year...

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