Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Day After

In Germany the twenty-sixth of December is known as the Second Christmas Day. It is a legal holiday in Germany, Austria, and some other countries in central Europe. Before Luther’s time Germans celebrated Christmas over a period of five days. That reminded me of the ancient Saturnalia. Christianity eventually displaced that Roman festival. It lasted seven days (from the 17th through the 23rd of December). In the Catholic tradition today is St. Stephen’s Day, Stephen considered to have been the first Christian martyr.

Odd how remnants of collective habit persist into the present. Christmas carries traces of the Saturnalia. Britain's Boxing Day comes to mind. Part of Saturnalia was an exchange of roles—Masters became Servants, Servants Masters. Just once a year. Just for fun. Boxing Day carries that forward at a discounted price. The 26th is an official but a moving holiday; Boxing Day is celebrated on Monday the 28th this year because today is Saturday. The idea is to give the “servants” a day off. And the name of the day comes from “boxes,” boxes bearing gifts. The rich gave these to their servants, suppliers, and other employees--shades of Saturnalia. Wikipedia tells me that after Ireland achieved its independence, it dropped Boxing Day. The Irish resumed the celebration of St. Stephen’s Day instead.

No one thinks I am a “folkish” sort of guy. Those kindly inclined call me “professor” (no standing there either); others think my nose is in the air.  But I had to laugh today. Checking these facts I came across the following (still Wikipedia):

The association of Boxing Day with sport in early village celebrations has led to the folk etymology that Boxing Day is traditionally associated with boxing, although the word box can mean a gift or gratuity, especially one given at Christmas, especially in Britain.
Turns out that I'd been captured by folk etymology throughout most of my life in the English-speaking world. Yes, I had callously assumed that boxing events are common on the day after Christmas in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the Commonwealth. Two or three years ago an impulse sent me off to check the facts. Then at last I discovered the box—the box as in:

This is my box, this is my box, I never travel without my box. In the first drawer I keep my magic stones. One carnelian against all evil and envy. One moonstone to make you sleep. One red coral to heal your wounds. One lapis lazuli against quartern fever. One small jasper to help you find water. One small topaz to soothe your eyes. One red ruby to protect you from lightning. This is my box, this is my box. I never travel without my box. In the second drawer, I keep all my beads. Oh, how I love to play with beads, all kinds of beads. This is my box, this is my box. I never travel without my box. In the third drawer… Oh, little boy! Oh, little boy… In the third drawer I keep … Licorice… Black, sweet licorice. Have some. [Amahl and the Night Visitors, Gian-Carlo Menotti]


  1. That song, "this is my box..." has always seemed just a bit sinister to me... as if somebody were trying to lure a child with it.

    I prefer the song: "Little boxes on the hillside, littel boxes made of ticky-tacky, little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same..."

    Happy Boxing Day!

  2. You forget that I once acted in Amahl and the Night Visitor, and old Kaspar, one of the three kings, he who sings this ditty, is childlike himself and wishes only to please little Amahl...

  3. How about the Richard Mattheson short story "The Box." It's about a stranger who offers a couple a box with a button inside. Push the button and you get a million dollars, but someone you love will die. The wife pushes the button eventually and the husband dies in front of a subway car, as I recall. The stranger grins: "I mean, how well do we really know the people love?" Shudder!


    Happy New Year!

  4. Welcome to the site, Bob. I see that you have a new Blogger profile!! Mattheson's existentialist box I'd not heard of before...


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