Not just the day after Christmas: Dec. 26 holidays hold significance for cultures worldwide

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Julie Liu/Staff

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While Dec. 25 can mean everything from spending the day with family and faith to searching high and low for an open restaurant, Dec. 26 seems like a typical day on most Americans’ calendars, despite several holidays being celebrated in the shadow of Christmas.

Rooted in culture

In 1966, Maulana Karenga founded Kwanzaa to unite the African American community mentally and spiritually after the Watts Riots, a six-day riot against inferior living conditions the black community faced. The seven day celebration begins Dec. 26 and ends Jan. 1. Each day has its own principle — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economy, purpose, creativity and faith.

“What we do is honor our history, our culture, the family, the first roots,” said Adrian Williams, executive director of the Village Project and producer for the Bay Area’s Kwanzaa celebrations.

Williams began organizing Kwanzaa celebrations 10 years ago. The first celebrations in San Francisco began at public housing complexes with 10 to 15 attendees, but according to Williams, last year’s attendance neared 1,700.

“Kwanzaa is a celebration of Africanness and blackness and family, and the focus is on our heritage,” Williams said, also affirming that she appreciates a diverse attendance in the community. “I believe personally in sharing culture — that’s how we live together and understand each other.”

Each day’s celebrations in San Francisco involves the ritual lighting of candles of the kinara (a Swahili term meaning “candelabra”), a talk on the day’s theme and entertainment.

“Each of the hosts gets to put their own flavor on the event,” such as spoken word and dancing, Williams said.

Boxes and boxing

If a calendar lists one holiday on Dec. 26, it is usually Boxing Day. In Canada, bargain hunters head to the malls on Dec. 26, when huge sales similar to Black Friday’s attract shoppers who have the day off. Bringing home boxes (or bags) of new purchases has given the holiday’s name new meaning.

“The most prevalent explanation is it was the day wealthier people gave workers a gift and a day off for their work during the year,” said Heather Hudson, a professor of communication policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage and former campus visiting scholar.

Boxing Day originated in England and is celebrated in many Commonwealth nations.

“There are a lot of people who celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve with their family,” said Kathryn Exon Smith, a volunteer for the Digital Moose Lounge, an online social resource for Canadians in California. “Some do Christmas Eve and Christmas day and then a bigger, extended celebration on Boxing Day.”

Pierre Germain, a Berkeley resident from Canada and senior acoustic engineer with Meyer Sound, recalled turning wrapping-paper rolls into pretend lightsabers on Boxing Day as a child. Apart from the lightsabers, Germain’s holiday memories were filled with stories not of Boxing Day or Christmas, but of French traditions such as reveillon – best thought of as a long dinner party – occurring after Christmas Eve’s midnight mass.

Dec. 26 also marks many important sporting events in the Commonwealth: Premier League football and rugby matches in the United Kingdom, Test cricket matches in Australia and South Africa — and yes, boxing matches on Boxing Day.

The annual World Juniors, an international ice hockey championship for players under 20 years old, begins Dec. 26. This year, Canada will be playing the United States in Finland.

The wren boys

Where Boxing Day is a secular holiday, the Feast of Saint Stephen is celebrated by Christians in several European countries and is interwoven with Celtic folklore in Ireland.

The story goes that a teenage Saint Stephen was accused of blasphemy, and while hiding in bushes, a wren alerted a mob to his location. In Ireland and the Isle of Man, Saint Stephen’s is also known as Wren’s Day.

“To commemorate Saint Stephen, the wren boys go around with these hilarious straw costumes — similar to the material of a thatched roof,” said Tarah Connolly, a junior campus psychology student. They are tasked with sacrificing a wren, which is then brought house to house as the wren boys and girls collect money for charity.

The wren boys and those celebrating Saint Stephen’s may sing and dance, according to Connolly. Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, an Irish music and cultural group, continues the traditions in San Francisco’s Sunset and Richmond neighborhoods.

Future feasts

Departing from the Gregorian calendar, other holidays, such as Hanukkah and Ramadan, may also fall on Dec. 26 — next in 2016 and 2030, respectively.

Dec. 26 is also the feast day of Abadiu of Antinoe, a martyred saint in the Coptic Orthodox Christian Church. A feast day may be marked by mentioning the saint and scripture, but information regarding Saint Abadiu is scarce, said Father Markos Ayoub of St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in New Jersey.

Kwanzaa, Boxing Day and Wren’s Day each extend beyond families, connecting the celebrators with friends and community. Falling on a Saturday this year, the celebrations could be larger: A Saturday is a day off for many Americans and, unlike that Sunday, does not compete with 13 games of American football.

Contact Pamela Larson at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @PamReporting.