In December 2012, I wrote this column as an Ode to December and talked about some of the meaningful dates of that year. Of course, December 7, “a date that will live in infamy” because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, will always be remembered as long as we honor those who fought in World War II.

That column also outlined the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, beginning on December 2 this year, the same day as the Christian celebration of Advent which ends on Christmas Eve and the coming of the Savior on Christmas. Both Hanukkah and Christmas are celebrations of miracles for the Judeo-Christian community. Although we have secularized these events, they remind us that there is more to life than what is tangible or what we can control.


As noted in the 2012 column, Kwanzaa, a secular celebration, was started in 1966 as an African-American celebration of family, community and African culture. All of these reminders and celebrations help us to focus on our past as we look to the future of 2019 and beyond.

This year I became intrigued with other celebrations in December, several of which have interesting roots. Boxing Day, which has nothing to do with boxing, was begun in the UK and is also observed in Australia and Canada, but refers to boxes of holiday gifts given to the servants and tradesmen by their masters and bosses along with the day off after Christmas for serving so well throughout the year. Boxing Day also began to refer to charity drives by churches on Christmas Day, the goods to be distributed to the poor on Dec. 26. There was even a nautical tradition of sailing ships having a sealed box of money on board for good luck; if the trip was successful the box was given to a priest to be opened on Christmas and the contents given to the poor.

Boxing Day was therefore tied to the Catholic Church’s celebration of St. Stephen’s Day since both grew out of the tradition of charitable giving at Christmas. According to the New Testament, Stephen, along with six others, was appointed by the Apostles to distribute food and charitable goods to the poorer members of the Christian community in Jerusalem. It was said that he had great wisdom, was richly blessed by God and performed great miracles.

St. Stephen is also known as the first Christian martyr, which gives him prominence with Christ the Savior. Having been falsely accused of belittling the Jewish Temple and the laws of Moses, Stephen answered his accusers, in Acts 7, by rehearsing the Old Testament: Israel’s disobedience to God, Jesus’ fulfillment of the laws of Moses, and that God does not dwell in houses made with hands. He even said he saw the heavens opened and Jesus standing by the side of God. Such “blasphemy” led to his stoning while he prayed that his killers would be forgiven, something reminiscent of the crucifixion of Jesus.

In Catholic culture, Advent and Christmas bring God to man while the twelve days between Christmas and the Epiphany bring man to God. Stephen uses charity, or what we might interpret as love, to bring man to God as he demonstrated God’s love by praying for his oppressors in the midst of their erring ways. We are told, too, that the charity of St. Stephen is the reason for the songs and customs of celebrating his feast day on December 26. “Good King Wenceslas,” who looked out on the feast of Stephan, for example, was written by John Mason Neale and published in 1853. It tells of the King of Bohemia, a 10th century Catholic who went out on St. Stephen’s Day to bring charity to the poor. (By the way, he was also a martyr, having been assassinated by his own brother.)

One thing is for certain about Boxing Day and the Feast of St. Stephen — they were both introduced to teach charity and love for those less fortunate. But what, you might ask, is the meaning of the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” the 12 days between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, celebrated from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6, which is Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day?

I suspect that the “Twelve Days of Christmas” was started — probably in France — as a way to expand on the idea of charity in a humorous and playful manner, though some have tried to place all kinds of religious meanings to the gifts of the twelve days. (Snopes denies the validity of these religious connotations.) Let’s enjoy the song in 2018 as a way to remind us to show charity in a gigantic way. PNC’s annual Christmas Price Index for 2017 estimated the value of the gifts at a hefty $34,558.65, or $157,558 when counting each mention of an item separately.

The first seven items are gifts of birds, which should keep one busy for a long time: a partridge in a pear tree, two turtle doves, three French hens, four calling birds (probably blackbirds), five gold rings (markings of a ring-necked pheasant in keeping with the bird motif), six geese a-laying, seven swans a-swimming. After running out of birds, the next five gifts bring still more sustenance and lots of frivolity and music: eight maids a-milking (the cows with them), nine ladies dancing, 10 lords a-leaping, 11 pipers piping, and 12 drummers drumming!

If we cannot give all these things this Christmas, let us give of ourselves to make this a better world in 2019!