The Feast of Stephen is just the beginning
When I was a boy, one fixed point in the Gooch family Christmas was the Boxing Day walk, an opportunity to get out of the house for a couple of hours and “blow away the cobwebs”. We’d walk down the lane to where the local steam railway ran through a belt of woods and then on to the beach, a huge flat expanse of windswept sand facing the Channel — which at that time of year is generally a moody slate grey under iron skies. Back home in the warm, there were leftovers and a chance to open more presents, my mother having wisely prevented us from unwrapping them all on Christmas Day itself. Sometimes, if we stewarded our haul carefully, we’d still have gifts waiting three or four days after the “main event”.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve realised what a shrewd move this was on my mother’s part. It prevented us from concentrating all our excitement into a narrow window between 7am and the Queen’s Speech, and helped us to view Christmas as a season, not a single day. Traditionally, of course, this was very much the case in England. The 26th December — St Stephen’s Day, the “feast of Stephen” mentioned in that glorious old carol Good King Wenceslas — was not the beginning of the end of festive cheer, but only the second day of nearly a fortnight of feasting, jollity and celebration, culminating in the Epiphany on the 6th of January.
The BBC made a programme a few years back called A Merry Tudor Christmas, with Dr Lucy Worsley, introducing the audience to what the Twelve Days Of Christmas would have involved in late medieval England. She waxed lyrical about wassailing, game pies, dances and the raucous revels of Twelfth Night, when the normally rigid social order relaxed a little and Lords of Misrule from among the common folk were permitted — both metaphorically and occasionally literally — to tweak the noses of the gentry.
For our ancestors, this short but intense period was not all fun and games in terms of the events marked in the Christian calendar; St. Stephen himself was the first Christian martyr, while on the 28th December is the Feast of the Holy Innocents marking the Biblical massacre of children ordered by King Herod. But the overall mood was festive, a time of light, warmth and relative indulgence amid the gloom and austerity of winter. No doubt this enjoyment was sharpened by the fact that Advent had been a time of fasting and preparation.
What this meant was that the Twelve Days were noticeably different from the rest of the year in a way that I think modern people, to whom the universal and easy availability of meat, alcohol, chocolate and toys is a fact of life, struggle to understand. For the contemporary Christmas, if we are not careful, a sense of anti-climax is starting to creep in when the credits roll on the Boxing Day afternoon film.
This need not be the case. It is true that our lifestyles and economic structures do not allow for a full season of communal merriment, preceded by four weeks of abstinence. Quite apart from anything else, there are so few squires left to have their noses tweaked and their beer barrels drained.
All the same, if we approach in the right way, the Feast of Stephen can be the beginning, rather than the end, of a commitment to goodwill and cheerful benevolence.