Growing up in America, Boxing Day meant nothing more to me than the fine print on a calendar for the 26th of December: “Boxing Day (Canada).” Indeed, I looked on the words with the same sort of novelty with which I noted on the backs of books their price listed in American dollars and, always slightly more expensive, Canadian dollars. Even while living in my first Commonwealth country last year, I happened to be in the French Alps come December and though my Kiwi friends remarked almost haphazardly that it was Boxing Day, I again failed to grasp any further significance of the holiday. Only while at lunch with a colleague in London did I ask him just what the day was all about. “Well, you eat a big meal and then just lie around all day with family thinking about how much you’ve eaten,” was the gist of his explanation. “I see,” I said, “So it’s Thanksgiving.”
This year, though, I would be in a country where Boxing Day is most assuredly a public holiday, enabling me to earn time-and-a-half whilst going to work at Vercelli’s. All day, it was amazing to hear the number of customers sympathize with me that I had to work on the holiday. The whole reason I was even at work in the first place was because my English friend Aimee had mentioned earlier in the week that she wished she didn’t have to work on Boxing Day. Saturdays normally being my day off and Boxing Day being just the day after Christmas to me, I offered to take her shift. And so I came to work and listened as customers would say, “This must be weird for you having to work on Boxing Day,” and I was pleased to see them express their sympathies in the form of much-coveted cash tips. “Well, it’s not something I’m really used to celebrating,” I replied, if Boxing Day is indeed something you “celebrate,” or merely observe. But why don’t I, I began to wonder. I had to get to the bottom of just what this day is all about.
What I found the more I searched was there is no definitive history – much to the chagrin of my writer’s soul (and need for specific names and anecdotes). What I found instead were a number of possible explanations. The first story has to do with the fact that centuries ago, the day after Christmas was traditionally when the servants were given a day off (having had to work on Christmas, of course). Their aristocratic employers would show their appreciation by giving the servants boxes of presents to take home to their families, to open on a sort of extended Christmas holiday.
Yet another source stretches even further back to England in the Middle Ages, to the Feast of Saint Stephen, traditionally held on the 26th of December, in honor of Stephen being one of the seven apostles initially chosen to help with the distribution of the church’s alms to the poor of the community (Acts 6:5). Many churches kept metal boxes outside their doors in which people could place coins and donations. It was on the Feast of St. Stephen that churches would break open their boxes and distribute their alms to the poor. This – as so many traditions do – evolved through the years into the practice of giving gifts to anyone who had provided a service for you in the past year, one website mentioning such people as “tradesmen or mail carriers.”
However, any religious associations with the day seem to have dissipated over the years, leaving it now more or less a nominal day off work, spent with family and, perhaps more importantly, in the shops. If its past lies in the notion of generosity, the form Boxing Day takes today is more that of a mad rush to the stores, a massive blitz of sales and specials. Indeed, it has taken on the trappings of the great American Black Friday, sparking many a debate on Black Friday vs. Boxing Day. However, the Globe and Mail, a Canadian publication, noted that in 2009, US shoppers spent $10.66 billion after Thanksgiving, while only $7.9 billion the day after Christmas. Perhaps Black Friday’s cousin has a ways to go.
I came across yet another blog called lovehatethings whose author suggested renaming the holiday Unboxing Day “not because that’s when we open things (which occurs the day previous) but because that’s when we debox our households after the clutter of commerciality drowns us.” Again, I found myself nowhere closer to reaching a definitive understanding, instead only watching the variety of interpretations grow.
So all of these seemed to come together to form some kind of pseudo-history of the day. As varied as the stories were, they seemed to have one thing in common – the only thing anyone was sure about was that they weren’t sure about anything. It wasn’t a case of one website claiming one story as truth and another a different one – it was the mutual agreement on having nothing to agree on. One article I found from Time magazine was named “A Brief History of Boxing Day,” which featured in a column titled “A Brief History of…” But that seemed to be exactly it – the history of Boxing Day could be nothing more than brief, a mishmash and mixture of myths.
And through it all, I found it no accident that while I celebrated my first summer Christmas and my first Boxing Day, I’d only just started reading Pico Iyer’s The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home. Iyer – born to Indian parents, educated in Britain, brought up in America and currently living in Japan – is the very definition of the Global Soul on which he writes. Furthermore, the book traces his journey across the world in search of other such souls – people of one place living in another, marrying someone of yet another background, raising their children in still another locality – all coming together to challenge the very notion of what words like “nationality” and “universalism” even mean. It’s exhausting to think about, really. In the work, though, he draws from a wide range of sources and inspiration, including Simone Weil:
“Back in my room, I picked up the book I had been carrying round with me, L’Enracinement (translated as The Need for Roots), by Simone Weil. For most of her thirty-four years, the French Jewish Catholic had taken pains to live no better than the peasants and factory workers around her, and so, during the war, while in England, she had been asked by General de Gaulle to write a report on the possibility and responsibilities of the French after they were liberated. Anticipating the death of certain fixities, she had written, “No human being should be deprived of this metaxu, that is to say, of those relative and mixed blessings (home, country, tradition, cultures, etc.) which warm and nourish the soul and without which, short of sainthood, a human life is not possible” (111-12).
As I read of Iyer’s search, his words constantly on my mind in this unfamiliar holiday season, I thought to myself of how in many ways, I couldn’t be more different than him, I couldn’t be anymore removed from his plight: my name matches my face which matches my accent which matches my upbringing. My metaxu couldn’t be more secure, more defined, more homogenous. And as tempted as I am to grow jealous of Iyer’s multicultured background, or of others like my friend Gretta, half-Swedish, half-Philippina, having lived for ten years in South Africa, attended American International Schools resulting in her almost-American accent, and currently at university in London, I am also grateful that my rather uncomplicated past gives me only greater courage with which to launch out into the unknown. To explore new cultures, new holidays, new ways of doing life, without ever questioning who I am at my core. With my roots firmly in place, I’m not afraid to branch out in whatever direction the wind may blow.
All I know is that while the 26th of December might just be another day to me, from this point on, whether I’m in New Zealand, England, or even back home in the States, I’ll be thinking of all those around the world to whom it’s not.