On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Two turtle-doves and a partridge in a pear tree. – Traditional Christmas carol
We all learned the traditional carol as children, but did you ever stop to think of what it’s actually about? Other than a rather improbable inflation of increasingly expensive gifts, I mean; just imagine how much it would cost to hire ten noblemen to leap at someone’s party on three successive days. I’m sure most of you realize that Christmas was originally a twelve-day festival, but you may not realize what that actually means: pre-industrial European society essentially shut down for twelve days while everyone celebrated. Other than the Church, virtually every social institution – banks, businesses, governmental functions, the lot – was closed until January 6th. Now, obviously things moved a lot more slowly in those days; crossing the average country took days rather than hours, and people (again, outside the Church) planned more by the calendar than by the clock. Considering that, the twelve-day hiatus was not much more inconvenient than a weekend was in my childhood, when virtually everything other than restaurants (and the Church) was closed from 5 PM Friday to 9 AM Monday. On top of that, it came midway through the slowest time of the year: though most modern people imagine that the agricultural lifestyle meant constant hard work, that was really only true in the spring and autumn; summers weren’t at all bad, and winter was basically a three-or-four-month vacation except for normal household chores.
That started to change with the rise of the towns in the High Middle Ages, but even then work during the festival was probably a lot like the Friday afternoon before a long weekend: lots of people out “sick”, and the ones who aren’t not really trying too hard. This was undoubtedly a large part of the reason dour work-until-you-drop-you-horrible-sinner-because-God-hates-you Protestants condemned the festival so relentlessly, even getting it banned in Britain under the Commonwealth from 1647-1660, and in Boston from 1659-1681. Industrialization and the breakup of extended families renewed the attack a century later, and though the influence of rural people and writers like Charles Dickens revived the holiday in the first half of the 19th century, it only survived as a shorn, domesticated, factory-friendly one-day celebration rather than a two-week orgy of eating, drinking, games, music and most un-Puritan laziness.
But today, we’ve regained some of that leisure time we started losing in the 18th century; though many of my readers returned to work today, many others did not (perhaps even using vacation or “flex time” to accomplish that). If you’re one of those lucky ones, I suggest you resist the urge to join the throngs at Boxing Day sales or returns counters; instead, indulge in the traditional activities associated with this day such as visiting friends or helping the less fortunate, or else just rest at home with those you love and eat Christmas leftovers. While it’s true that we can no longer put the entire world on hold for twelve days, I’m sure most of you can manage two.