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The feast of Stephen

Brothers Dalziel

On December 26 an air of fatigue lies over the land, which is not surprising. The holidays are a big commitment, both emotionally and financially. The day after Christmas is a kind of shock, not so much like hitting a brick wall as like falling over a cliff. Now what do we do?

Some nations have a way of softening the landing. They call it Boxing Day. December 26 is a national holiday in Britain, Australia, Canada, and a few other right-thinking places. This gives everyone a much-needed opportunity to decompress after the holidays.

In my family, when I was growing up in England, Boxing Day was a time out of time. Nothing had to be done, and nothing much was done. Traditionally, those who had survived the festive dinner went out on a long walk, regardless of the weather. This was a kind of voluntary penance, disguised as fun, for the excesses of the days before.

The origins of Boxing Day are lost in history, which just goes to show how easily things do get lost in history. In one of his novels that clever fellow Julian Barnes remarked that “History is that certainty produced where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” Boxing Day is a perfect example of this. Some historians say that the peculiar name comes from the fact that many boxing matches were held on the day after Christmas, but that doesn’t seem very likely. Others have linked it, more plausibly, to the tradition of charity.

December 26 is also Saint Stephen’s Day when the early churches used to put out boxes to collect alms for the poor. One of the most popular Christmas carols tells how Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Saint Stephen and went forth to do good works. In Victorian times it was traditional for domestic servants to get their Christmas bonus or Christmas box on this day. In very generous households the servants were even given a day off.

What interests most people in the countries that celebrate Boxing Day is not the etymology of the name but the simple fact that it is a national holiday. The holiday here is too short and ends too abruptly. This year, Christmas fell on a Sunday, and some employers have declared that today can be a holiday instead. But usually, it’s just one day off and back to work. Workers need more down time. Only Congress can declare national holidays and if they can’t fix the budget deficit, the least they can do is to fix the holiday deficit.

Religious holidays are fixed, but secular holidays can be created without limit. Kwanzaa is already here, to fill awkward the gap from today until January 1. There are plenty of other special days that should be holidays but aren't. Boxing Day would be a good start. Mother's Day, Father's Day and Valentine's Day are obvious choices. Groundhog Day, National Cat Appreciation Day (October 29), and Tax Day on April 15 should certainly be national holidays — we deserve them.

In fact, we need as many days of rest and tranquility as a grudging Congress can be persuaded to give us. But don’t expect your extra free days to be legislated any time soon.

Congress won’t be back at work until January 3.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.