Home Teaching, December 2006

A final HT message for the year. Bloggernacle, I hope you had a great Christmas!

President Monson’s message in this month’s Ensign is pretty wonderful. His talks are like returning to my roots for me; familiar rhetorical style and familiar tropes that feel like home and hearth. This month he discusses gifts: the gift of birth, the gift of peace, the gift of love, and the gift of life — even immortality. I recommend you read it and savor his words; they’re as comfortable as broken-in slippers.

Emboldened by President Monson’s talk, maybe I’ll share some Christmas and New Years random thoughts.

Christmas in Canada was typically on a bitterly cold day. Temperatures below freezing, snow and ice outside, with warm (non-alcoholic) wassail and mom’s butter tarts inside. Inevitably the ward’s youth activity would be carolling door-to-door; that would last about 20 minutes before frostbite and the grumblings of being a teenager would force us back indoors. But all in all, a pretty traditional Christmas, with the modern trappings of lavish gifts, Santa Claus and Rudolph.

Though Christmas itself is familiar to all, the day after — Boxing Day — is also a day of celebration and ritual, though one largely ignored. While no one really knows why the 26th is called Boxing Day (and in Canada no one really cared), the day has liturgical (and personal) meaning as St. Stephen’s Day. Christ’s birth comes at the solstice — his advent stops the darkness from spreading — but the day after Christmas is a time of rebirth and celebration, beginning the new life Christ gives. Good King Wenceslaus looked out on this day, Wren’s Day in Ireland and Gwyl San Steffan in Wales — one of the greatest days of pagan tradition.

Wren’s Day is marked by street festivals in Ireland today. It marks a day of hunting for the wren, a treacherous bird which betrayed St. Stephen. Formerly the bird would be hunted, nailed to a pole and placed at the head of a parade including a hobby horse. In parts of Ireland, Wrenboys parade in suits of straw and oats, a large wooden puppet horse on their shoulders. Druidic ritual and Christian myth come together in spectacular fashion.

In Wales, Gwyl San Steffan is primarily known for the tradition of holming, a Welsh tradition which I believe is poised to take America by storm. On this day, young men and boys perform “holly-beating,” slashing the arms and legs of female domestic servants with holly branches until they bled. Customarily, the last person to get out of bed in the morning was beaten with sprigs of holly, and had to be the main servant of the family for the entire day. But that’s not all! On farms, the animals were also bled. Luckily for the livestock (and the domestics), holming died out before the end of the 19th Century.

I wonder if someday people will look back at our trees, tinsel, stockings and mistletoe and shake their heads in disbelief at our paganism. I love belonging to a Church that has given the directive to seek insight from all sources while providing inspiration for entirely new traditions of its own. Happy Boxing Day, everyone! May your day be full of magic and wonder at the new life Christ has brought.

And get ready for New Year’s Eve and the Mari Lwyd!


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Your visit made me think of the Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin, with its songs about wrens and the terrific Elvis Costello contribution, The St. Stephens Day Murders.

  2. That’s one of my favorite Christmas cds, Kevin. The highlight, I think, is the Renaissance Singers’ rendition of “Once in Royal David’s City,” backed by the Chietains and the bells of Dublin. Awesome stuff.

  3. Julie M. Smith says:

    I thought the idea behind Boxing Day is that you ‘boxed’ up all the old things you didn’t need anymore (due to new Christmas gifts the day before) and gave them to the poor. Is that just an urban myth?

  4. No, no, Julie, not at all. It is called Boxing Day because it is the day when everyone fights over gifts they do not want to share.

  5. Julie – that’s one of the theories. Another is that’s when the priests opened the alms boxes and distributed them to the poor.

    I’ve also heard the theory that’s when masters would give their servants boxes with leftover food/stuff they didn’t need anymore to take home with them – servants worked on Christmas day but got the day after off.

  6. Steve Evans says:

    Yeah Julie, that’s urban myth — but then, most of Boxing Day is urban myth. Personally I think it was just a way to stop calling it St. Stephens Day.

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