by Jean Roberta
‘Tis the season when other obligations take time away from writing. I had good intentions of writing this post a week ago, but shopping, cleaning, decorating, and cooking with my spouse, plus socializing with other people, took over most of the time. My apologies for the lateness of this post.
For traditional Christians, today is St. Stephen’s Day, feast day of the first Christian martyr, who was supposedly stoned to death by pagans for daring to proclaim that baby Jesus was the Messiah. For the secular hordes in Britain and all the Commonwealth countries (including Canada, where I live), today is called Boxing Day.
When I first moved here from the U.S. with my parents and sisters, nearly fifty years ago, I was puzzled that the day after Christmas had a name, and was officially a holiday in itself. (If I were getting paid to write this, I could demand time-and-a-half.) At first, I thought maybe it was a day for professional sports, including boxing. (I wasn’t completely wrong.) Then I thought maybe it was a day for all the tension of the holiday season to result in physical fights between relatives, spouses, and even lovers and friends. (I wasn’t completely wrong about this either.)
I was told that December 26 is when you box up all the Christmas presents you don’t like, or which don’t fit, and take them back to the store to exchange for something you do like. For everyone who works in retail sales, today is clearly not a holiday.
In a more openly class-divided era, Boxing Day was apparently when servants, delivery-men and the like were given Christmas boxes of money and leftover food by their employers, along with a day off, to compensate for the underpaid and overworked nature of their jobs.
In the last fifty years, though, Boxing Day has become increasingly known as a day of shopping madness, when everyone who is not too hungover and exhausted to brave the weather and the crowds rushes out to buy things on sale to stock up for next year.
Boxing Day sales probably benefit the community here that practises the Orthodox Catholic tradition of celebrating Christmas on a day in January which was known to Western Christians of Shakespeare’s time as Twelfth Night or the Feast of the Epiphany, the day when the magi or the three kings (not sure which) arrived in Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus. While the rest of us are glumly going back to work in the cold, when the hours of daylight are still short, a few programs on local TV feature choirs singing hearty Ukrainian hymns, and wishes for a merry Christmas in the Cyrillic alphabet.
This brings me back to reasons for boxing, fighting, or arguing with your nearest and dearest—or simply snubbing them and hoping they understand your reasons for not showing up and not speaking to them.
As far as I can see, there is no easy way to integrate holiday traditions when family members acquire Significant Others, but don’t want to completely ditch their own parents and siblings on holidays. I felt lucky to hook up with a Latin American in 1989, when I was a single mother with a daughter who looked forward to Christmas Day with her grandparents every year. As a secular Protestant (agnostic with Protestant roots), I had grown up opening presents under the Christmas tree on December 25, when my mother served a holiday brunch of apple strudel and eggnog or coffee, which adults could get spiked with the booze of their choice. My Chilean spouse had grown up with the Catholic tradition of having a big meal on Christmas Eve, then attending Midnight Mass, and opening presents afterward before collapsing into bed in the wee hours.
After some uncomfortable conversations with my mother, in which she claimed that my daughter’s routine shouldn’t be changed at all because my relationship with a Chilean woman and her two sons was not equivalent to a marriage, my new nuclear family settled into a two-day tradition of eating roast beef on Christmas Eve in the home I shared with Spouse, passing the time until midnight by chatting, playing games and watching movies on TV, then opening presents. The next day, my daughter went to her grandparents (where she could also see her aunties if they were in town), and my two stepsons went to spend the day with their father, his wife, and eventually, their half-sister. It worked out.
My daughter left town to attend art school, then moved to a bigger city, and my parents both passed away in 2009. The absence of my blood relatives simplified things and also made it possible for us (lesbian couple) to start a new tradition of making a roast turkey dinner on December 25 and bringing it to the local gay (LGBT) club for those who have nowhere else to celebrate, or would prefer to avoid other company. Other club members bring ham, side dishes and desserts. We spread the word that everyone we know (regardless of gender or sexual expression) is welcome to join us. The crowd is usually small, but it works out.
Clashing traditions and/or families don’t always integrate well. If someone in my extended family grew up celebrating Hanukkah or Ukrainian Christmas (as it is usually called here), that might extend the holiday season, or result in uproar and feuds that could last for years. I won’t mention dashed plans that I’ve heard of, involving people I know who would undoubtedly claim I am telling it wrong.
The expectation that peace and love will prevail in the holiday season is unrealistic, and the effort involved in trying to avoid open conflict is one of the causes of holiday exhaustion. Made-for-TV movies about family reconciliation (hard to avoid in this season) are feel-good expressions of wish fulfillment, and they need to be recognized as such.
The great thing about the life of a writer, however, is that all experience can be used in some way. If Uncle Ned got sloppily drunk and sexually harassed his niece by marriage at the family get-together, or if Mom burst into tears and refused to come out of her room after cooking all day, or if the controversial couple (same-sex, different-race, different-religion, whatever) was kicked out by the conservatives, or left after being insulted, these events probably can’t be described on the page exactly as they happened. Writing about this stuff and including the real names of people and places might get you sued, and would probably get you written off a guest list or two.
However, conflict is a great engine for moving the plots of stories, novels, and plays. When the dust is settled, and when the winter holidays are over (thank the Deity of your choice), the drama of the season can be artfully worked into a narrative that can entertain a variety of readers for years.
It’s hard to imagine a better holiday gift for the writer, or for the readers who understand.
Monday, December 26, 2016
by Jean Roberta