It was my first Boxing Day in retail. There I was, sitting at the returns desk at Classics Books in Midtown Manhattan, 1980. A woman in a mink coat angrily dropped a volume upon my desk: “Mommy Dearest,” by Christina Crawford.
“I’m returning this — this piece of trash!” she said.
“Was there something wrong with the book?” I asked. She’d received it just the day before.
Her eyes narrowed. “Joan Crawford,” she said, “was a wonderful mother!”
The day after Christmas is a hard day to work in retail, what with all the returns and exchanges. At least Black Friday is just about sales. So many people. So much disappointment.
We don’t have a proper name for the Day After here in the States, although it’s definitely a good time to stay home if you can. It’s a day for reflection, for eating leftovers, for taking stock of the year just past.
In England, it’s Boxing Day; in Ireland and elsewhere, it’s St. Stephen’s Day. When I was a student in London, my professor, a Briton, explained that it was called Boxing Day because it’s the day disappointed children punch one another out.
For years I trusted this story, which only proves that there are some people who will believe anything, and I am one of them.
The real origins of Boxing Day go back to feudal times, when workers on a lord’s estate would ask, on this day, for a Christmas box, in exchange for good service throughout the year. Later, the tradition expanded to include the collection of alms for the poor.
In Ireland, St. Stephen’s Day brings the appearance of the Wren Boys — costumed revelers engaged in a ritualized hunting of a wren. The best-known Wren parade happens in Dingle, in County Kerry. There’s a lot of marching around and collecting of money, some of which goes to charity and some of which — according to at least one of my Irish friends — goes to pay for a round at the pub. The veneration of the wren predates Christianity, in fact: The Irish word for wren, “dreoilin” — comes from two words, “draoi ean,” the druid bird.
There are lots of songs that go with this revelry. I always liked the Grateful Dead’s “St. Stephen,” which speaks of the “country garland in the wind and the rain; wherever he goes the people all complain.”
And I like the one the Chieftains sing: “The wren, oh the wren he’s the king of all birds/on St. Stephen’s Day he got caught in the furze/So it’s up with the kettle and it’s down with the pan/Won’t you give us a penny for to bury the wren.” The wren symbolizes winter, as the robin represents summer, and “burying the wren” means the coming of longer days.
Then there’s “The King,” which Steeleye Span covered years ago. In Victorian times, this tune accompanied the presentation of a wren-king, hidden inside a box, dressed in silks. In exchange for a donation, you could get a glimpse of the king. (“Joy, love, health and peace, be all here in this place/By your leave we will sing, concerning our king/Our king is well dressed, in silks of the best,/wearing ribbons so rare, no king can compare.”)
Who was St. Stephen, and what does he have to do with Christmas, or Christians? Stephen was the faith’s first martyr, slain for suggesting, among other things, that God was not to be found in the temple, or in any dwelling made by human hands.
As a Christian, I can promise you I fall short in lots of ways, especially in my consistent failure to treat other people with the love and grace they deserve. But on the issue of the temple, St. Stephen and I are of one mind. Most of the times that I’ve experienced the eternal are times when I was not sitting in an actual church.
Exactly 40 years ago, in fact, on St. Stephen’s Day 1978, I was staring into a fire at a beach house in Atlantic City with some friends. As I sat there looking at the flames, I heard a voice as clear as a bell, speaking out of my own heart: How long, the voice inquired, do you intend to avoid becoming yourself?
A little while longer, I thought.
This year, on St. Stephen’s Day, I’m almost certain to find myself by a fire once again, looking into the flames, thinking about the road that lies ahead. My daughter, who spent the holidays in Maine with us, will be leaving that morning, stepping onboard an airplane bound for Australia, where she will be joining her fiancé’s family, halfway around the world. I don’t know when I will be seeing her again. Soon, I hope.
From the woods outside comes the voice of the wren. The light returns
Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author of the novel Long Black Veil.