Christmas (and shopping) for others

December 26th, what is Boxing Day in Commonwealth countries is known affectionately in America as the “Day After Christmas,” as in “The Day After Christmas Sales.” It is, traditionally, a time to begin shopping for all the things one didn’t receive on December 25th (at drastically-reduced prices, of course), eat cold turkey or ham sandwiches, and begin watching college football bowl games. The Day After Christmas encourages a continuing attitude of consumption carefully honed in the lead-up to Christmas by focusing individuals and families on eating, drinking, and buying for another full day. While some workers in more elite jobs may get the day off, for many, the day also marks a return to work, especially if one’s occupation is in the retail or hospitality industries.

boxing-day-sales

While Boxing Day increasingly looks very much like the Day After Christmas, the public holiday is actually closely related to St. Stephen and concerned, not with consumption, but with caring for the poor. St. Stephen, recognized as the first Christian martyr was, before his death, one of the first Christian social workers. His job, as a deacon  in the early church, was to oversee the distribution of alms, clothing, and food to the widows, the orphans, and those in need, ensuring that everyone’s needs were met. Appropriately, the day his life is celebrated—December 26th—comes on the second day of the Christmas season: Stephen’s dedication to the poor is a both a reflection of God’s care for his creation as demonstrated in the person of Jesus and an example of a life dedicated to continuing God’s redemptive work through meeting the needs of others. The spirit of St. Stephen’s day was somewhat at work in the traditional observance of Boxing Day, in which the gentry would give gifts to their servants and those who worked on their estates and all those in positions of service were given the day off. Far more clearly, the spirit of St. Stephen is commemorated in the English Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas,” which recounts the king boxing day cartoonleaving his castle to prepare a feast for a poor man whom he sees gathering wood in the driving snow.  As the carol progresses, the King’s servant grows weary trudging through the storm and the king encourages him to take heart and to take shelter from the weather by walking behind him. Like St. Stephen himself, King Wenceslas’ goodness to the poor man and his page are allegories for God’s descent from heaven in the person of Jesus and his love for all of us who are poor, in need, suffering, and discouraged by life’s stormy blasts.

As the stories of King Wenceslas and St. Stephen remind us, Christians believe that the birth of Jesus is only the beginning of God’s work of redeeming creation. This is why December 25th is really the first day of Christmas: it is the beginning of a new phase of the story. While Jesus’ birth announces the coming of a kingdom of peace and justice, the coming of that kingdom is also a new proclamation of war against the brokenness, suffering and evil that so frequently characterize the world.  What is more, God’s work of redeeming creation that begins with Jesus continues through us, making our works of kindness and generosity, our works against injustice and in favor of peace all part of God’s battle to redeem  creation.

Jessica Hughes

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2 responses to “Christmas (and shopping) for others

  1. Jess,

    Thanks for your thoughtful Advent/Christmas reflections–this year and last. I appreciate learning more about the Christian traditions behind this time of year from your writing. Just the other night we sang “Good King Wenceslas” and I had never heard it before. Great to now know more about the carol! (I am a bit behind in reading this entry!)

    Where do you do your research? I appreciate your helping me enter into the Christian year more fully. blessings–

    Johannah Wetzel

    • @ Johannah I’m so pleased that you have found these reflections helpful! My research into the church year comes from two main sources. One is the vibrant community of PhD candidates here at Notre Dame who study theology and church history. Through conversations with them, I learn heaps about the lived experience of the liturgical year and some of the reasoning behind church traditions from their research. The second key area is my own dissertation research in Victorian literature, theology, and church history. In the case of this post, “Good King Wenceslas” was written by John Mason Neale, an important English hymn writer who was part of the second generation of Tractarians and helped found the Camden society at Cambridge, which was concerned with liturgical aesthetics and history. He is someone whose influence on the English church through his hymns is of particular concern to my current project on Jesus in the Victorian period, so I was able to draw on some interpretations of the theological and cultural influence of his hymns that I’m currently working on. One of the challenges that academics frequently face is somehow bringing all the specialized reading that we do into conversation with the “real world” and people’s actual lives, so I’m encouraged to read that in the case of this post, I’ve bridged the gap…at least for someone!

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