Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Some old holidays were of such importance that one began marking them a day early, on the “eve” or “even”, as is still remember in the language in New Year’s Eve and Hallowe’en, on in Keats’s “Eve of Saint Agnes,” when “the owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold”. The tendency to anticipate solemn or festive days was matched by a tendency to extend them. Thus, for much of the English-speaking world the day after Christmas is still denominated “Boxing Day”. My wonderful mother-in law, an English lady of the middle classes born in 1898 and departed from us now for many years, was old enough to remember and recall for her children the actual custom that gave “Boxing Day” its name.
Her world, though very far removed from Downton Abbey, was nonetheless one in which domestic servants and accommodating tradespeople loomed large. By “accommodating” I mean that they came to you with deliveries of groceries, baked goods, dairy products, ice, household services of many kinds. It was an economic model in some ways being recreated by today’s Internet, only more direct, more personal, more immediately transactional. On the day after Christmas it was customary for such people to knock at your kitchen door in the legitimate search of a little something, a gratuity in cash or kind. The fellow who had been so faithful throughout long months in supplying you with cartloads of coal could expect to find on that day a little gift box for himself and his family. Boxing Day was the day that such boxes were distributed. This was all rather “feudal” from Marx’s point of view, but also “ideal”.
“Boxing Day” now means only “the day after Christmas” in England, and I note that the phrase has also to some degree found a home in American English. This year, in an entirely new way, I well and truly had a Boxing Day experience. It related less to ideal social relations than to single-stream recycling. I have to say, first, that we had an absolutely marvelous Christmas holiday, as I hope was the experience of every reader of this blog. We had a completely full house—all three children and their spouses, all six grandchildren, one attached boyfriend, fifteen in all. And we have the photograph to prove it. This blissful conjunction is unlikely to occur again soon, if ever. I say this out of no valetudinarian pessimism but in simple recognition of the dizzying dynamism of the lives of the younger generations. Our sumptuous midday feast picked is gastronomic path flawlessly through the cultural landscape of vegetarians, kosher-keepers, and Irish carnivores to its triumph of unity in its mountain of baked deserts.
Back to the boxing bit, however. As a family we like to give lots of gifts. The general rule is one “real” gift and several semi-facetious ones per recipient, with waived limits for really small people, of whom there were three. What I mean by “semi-facetious” is this. My eldest son and I exchanged identical cans of kippered herring, colorfully wrapped of course. Gifts of the Magi. The anchovies and the upscale tuna were separately packaged.
Some of our children, sensibly concluding that having their gifts shipped to Princeton in care of the APs was better than trying to bring them themselves in their various modes of conveyance from their various home bases, unleashed the awesome power of Amazon.com. By the beginning of the last week before Christmas our vestibule was stacked high and wide with Amazon cartons with their distinctive slinky curved arrow signs and, often, their portentous blue “Prime” tape. Then as their rightful owners arrived just before the holiday, there were competing orgies of repackaging the goods in what later appeared to be about 200 square yards of decorative wrapping paper. Very shortly thereafter, in the rampage that passes for “gift exchange” around here, the paper was removed, often by unceremonious infantile hands. The result approximated the aftermath of a ticker tape parade.
Our local recycling is done on a bi-weekly schedule, every other Monday. For reasons irrelevant to this account we missed the pickup on December 12. So there was already a detritus backlog as we came into Christmas week. And because Christmas fell on a Sunday, the pickup that ordinarily would have been made on the Monday (26th), Boxing Day, has been postponed until Saturday (31st), on which date we shall be in South Carolina. The meaning of the misalignment of the stars is that the next recycling date for which we shall be personally in residence is January 9th. There are certain favors I am prepared to ask of my neighbors, but rummaging through our garbage is not one of them. So I have spent half a day compressing shards of Christmas wrapping into Amazon shipping boxes, and breaking down little boxes to cram into larger ones—the product of which labor to be stored tidily somewhere in the house until dawn on January 9th. On this Boxing Day there is no room in the manger.