Despite the festive hymns and carols serenading our radio waves and those paradoxical heartfelt messages from cinematic and media mainstream, the holiday season continues as a hallmark for consumer commercialism. Events like Black Friday, (recently imported to Canada from the United States) and Boxing Day are, in many ways, indicators of what Christmas has become. And yet, at the same time, we must reconcile that Christmas would not be the same without the hustle and bustle of our malls and stores, the chanting of cash registers cha-chinging our gingerbread lattes into the night, and the emotional and fiscal investments in holiday hoopla from music albums, to clothing, to kitsch decorations and thematic paraphernalia. Let’s face it. Deeply intertwined with the spirit of Christmas is holiday commercialism. Its market hangs the bows, strings gleaming lights, decorates trees, cooks and bakes, and dangles those stockings by the fire. As much as we might not like to admit it, living in the throws of a commercially-driven society, much of what we do and who we are is influenced by the marketplace. Christmas is no exception. From the big to the small, the rich to the poor, all of us, consciously or subconsciously collectively agree to this cyclic arrangement of spending, buying, receiving and giving. It is arguably, part and parcel of our social contract, something that extends to all facets of our lives, from education to the workplace, to healthcare and the home. And yet, there is an obscenity about consumerism during the holidays that we all observe. A profane indecency that takes away from the gleaming display of Christmas in our windows and our hearts, mocking the very essence of what it’s all about.
Identifying commercial boundaries may be more about personal, intuitive checks and balances than about creating Big Brother government surveillance over holiday spending. Of course this does not just pertain to Christmas, but to an all season way of life. How far do we allow the coy underbelly of marketing, advertising, media and pop culture to affect our daily lives? When and where do we draw the line? That thin line between safe spending and obscene consumerism looks very differently for all of us. While many are perfectly fine with the frenzy of Boxing Day, embracing the shopping hysteria, others believe Boxing Day to be a vulgar misuse of the holiday spirit, exploiting the worst aspects of our nature. So what can we collectively concede about the presence of Boxing Day and other spectacles like it within the context of the holidays? Is it just as vulgar as opening the hoard of presents on Christmas Day, or is holiday shopping for Christmas Day reserved for a special, privileged judgement, (being that it is in celebration of Christ, the spirit of giving, good will, and hallowed saints)? One way or another, it’s important to understand the origin of holidays like Boxing Day within a historical and modern day context, to decide whether it serves to hinder or uphold the holiday spirit.
The exact origins of Boxing Day are not decisive. As with many historical customs that we continue to observe today, such as Halloween, holidays like Boxing Day are likely a culmination of several historical events and practices that have evolved over time to take their own shape and place within the lexicon of modern day society. Etymologically speaking, the term, Boxing Day may derive from a common European practice dated to the Middle Ages, when employers, masters and benefactors would give servants, subordinates and tradesmen gifts known as “Christmas Boxes” on the day after Christmas. Likewise, the term, Boxing Day may be in reference to the Alms Box, which was given to places of worship in order to collect donations for the poor. A similar connection may even derive from a late Roman/early Christian custom where placing metal boxes outside churches would help to collect special offerings in relation to the Feast of Saint Stephen, (a religious holiday, which in the Western Church, falls on the same day as Boxing Day).
Despite the secular and religious connotations associated with the Bank holiday, in the Commonwealth countries, Boxing Day is primarily renowned as a shopping celebration. A time when most stores post sales with drastically reduced items and discounts that generate overwhelming crowds and impossible queues, Boxing Day is favored by social media and news outlets as an opportunity to relay a melodramatic tale of commercial hysteria. Recent years has seen Boxing Day grow to include an entire “Boxing Week”, where sales extend several days before and after December 26th. In a last ditch effort to try and preserve the true purpose of Boxing Day as a Christmas holiday for family time, relaxation and recuperation, regions in parts of Northern Ontario and Atlantic Canada have prohibited retailers from opening on Boxing Day, either by provincial law or municipal bylaw. Likewise, in the Republic of Ireland, most shops have remain closed on Boxing Day, (observed as St. Stephen’s Day) since 1902. Sales however are, in most cases, postponed to December 27th, to continue the commercial hype of what has become an annual shopping day mecca.
In light of excessive holiday spending, in the form of Christmas commercialism and Boxing Day delirium, perhaps we need to rethink and redraw our boundary lines. While we cannot deny that commercialism is in itself, a catalytic engine for progress, a force that drives not just economies, but people, lifestyles, families, technology and even evolution itself, there may be a better approach. It’s incredible effect on the exchange and spreading of ideas, the show of love and affection, and perhaps even as a manifestation of the human spirit, altogether demonstrates the teeter totter effect of commercialism. While Boxing Day may prove to be a beneficial day for our economy, allowing greater access to a wider spectrum of commercial items, it also demonstrates our continuing reliance and dependency on “stuff” that at times, fills our homes, creates redundancy and clutters our lives. For the sake of our own mental health, it is important to keep stock of what’s significant, the meaning behind our purchases, and the emotional and spiritual investments it provides. If shopping and the whirlwind of commercialism, especially during the holidays, brings joy, happiness and a sense of peace, then this is simply what we take from it. The process. The experience. But if it brings stress and confusion and a long list of credit bills, we must retrace our steps and redraw our lines, making certain not to step over them, no matter how big the yellow tags appear, and how enticing those sales may be.