St. Stephen’s Day At My House

Happy St. Stephen’s Day!  If you plan to come over to my house on December 26th of any given year, that’s what you’ll hear.  If you are unfamiliar with the holiday, a few seconds on Google will tell you most of what you need to know.  It’s an Irish observance, known to the rest of the world only through brief mention in a couple of classic carols (“Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen…”).  As far as I know, I have no direct cultural connection to Ireland, and I don’t live in an Irish-American neighborhood.  In fact, even St. Patrick’s Day is barely remembered in our small Appalachian town.  It’s something people are content to see in Good Morning America’s coverage of parades in Chicago or Philadelphia.  We don’t even really have anything one might call a “pub.”  We have bars where people watch NFL and drink Bud Light, rather than watch World Cup and drink Guinness.  Yet, for the past eight years, St. Stephen’s Day has been celebrated faithfully by my family and a collection of close friends, and I must say I look forward to it as much as Christmas itself.  So how did this holiday tradition begin in isolation at one little house in West Virginia?  And perhaps the better question is can we even call it a “holiday tradition” if it’s not something that was handed down to me through a long line of Irish ancestors?

In truth, it began with a Chieftains album called “The Bells of Dublin.”  Still among my favorites, the album was just one of many in my Irish music collection.  Mingled throughout its many superb renditions of Christmas poetry and carols were a few songs dedicated to St. Stephen’s Day- one a hilarious original tune by Elvis Costello, and the others a medley of traditional party-like performances in which the band plays the role of “the wren boys.”  The more I heard about the day, the more I liked the idea, but my fascination was not so much with the traditions themselves but with the very idea of a December 26th holiday.  As a hard-working (yet exhausted) young man, I couldn’t help but dream of life in a culture where people don’t necessarily jump right back to work the day after Christmas. 

Perhaps it was my cynical, anti-retail attitude that noticed, but in the city where I lived at the time, December 26th was beast of a business day… especially for the stores that worked so hard to sell us our Christmas gifts in the first place.  The streets again were filled with trucks and other work traffic, the parking lots bustled with cars, customer service counters swarmed with cranky folks waiting to exchange a gift without a receipt, and a dozen stores on each block advertised day-after-Christmas sales.  I wondered what it was about us in America that couldn’t stand to take more than one day off from our consumer rituals.  It was as if we had to punish ourselves and each other for allowing the commercial world to shut down for a day.  Didn’t we have better things to do the day after Christmas?

During my search for St. Stephen’s Day, I happened to bring up the idea to a kind elder named Carl who for the past decade had spent about six months of each year in Germany.  Carl recounted his enjoyment celebrating the “second day of Christmas” in Germany.  According to him, it was just like December 25th in almost every way.  “What do they call that day in Germany?” I asked.  Like many Americans, I knew from my wall calendar that it was known as something called “Boxing Day” in Canada.  I expected this December 26th observance in Germany to have its own special name.  “It’s called ‘second day of Christmas,’” Carl replied, “and I liked it because it was nice quiet day.  Here, in America, it’s business as usual the day after Christmas.”  For me that settled it.  I knew that when I had a family of my own, we would recognize two holidays and, thanks to the Chieftains, it was going to be St. Stephen’s Day.

So over the past few years St. Stephen’s Day has become a couple of things.  On one hand it’s a great reunion of friends and family whom life has taken to varying places around the world.  These folks, who just happen to be in town visiting immediate family, are often glad to pop out and visit with a variety of other West Virginians who have moved to Russia, China, Australia, Europe, Colorado, Tennessee, Georgia, Nevada, and Hawaii.  Without St. Stephen’s Day, it would be hard to get these old friends together.  On the other hand, it’s a great place to welcome new friends into the best our quirky family has to offer.  Our annual St. Stephen’s Day Party consists of a variety of unusual fun including a gingerbread house quick-construction contest, and a competition for the best funeral service held for a (fake) dead wren.  For me St. Stephen’s Day is a time to have goofy fun with some of the people I love most.

So, can I claim this crazy event as a holiday tradition, or have I gone the way of Frank Costanza and created a Festivus of my own?  Well, if you think about it, most of what we call a tradition is not a national observance, a community observance, or even a cultural observance.  It’s a family or household observance.  While Christmas itself may be recognized world-wide as December 25th, the celebration of Christmas is specific to region.  Check your Christmas facts- not everyone has snow, Santa, turkey, and stop-motion animated television specials.  An even in the same region, family rituals differ.  In the United States, most of us have a tree, presents, a dinner, and Christmas records, but aside from that the family traditions vary greatly.  Each household does its own thing and it may not do it the same way every year.  One family sleeps in until 10am, eats brunch, then goes to the cinema, while another wakes up at 5am, tears open gifts, then fries a turducken.  One family has a cookout on the lake in sunny 60 degree weather, while another gets drunk and takes turns driving the snowmobile through the frozen hills.  Do you get the idea?  So at my house, we recognize a second holiday by blasting Irish music and enjoying a grand night of food and games with our best friends.  So what?  It’s our tradition. Happy St. Stephen’s Day!

Poster by Jared St. Martin Brown

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