My father and I arrived at Sam the Record Man in downtown Montreal around 10:30 am, after a late breakfast at Murray’s in Westmount. The Boxing Day crowds that lined up along Rue Ste-Catherine and around the block for hours in the December Chill to get first crack at 99-cent door-crasher deals on the latest Rolling Stones LP had long dispersed. We pushed our way through the ground-floor chaos, up the stairs to the classical and jazz sections. The white record bins gleamed in the clear winter light flooding through the second-floor windows.
At that time, the Boxing Day sale was a great Canadian tradition. Now largely supplanted by Black Friday and the colonization of Canadian consumer culture by the United States (really: Canadian Thanksgiving is long over by the time Black Friday comes around), the day after Christmas was the biggest extravaganza of deep-discount shopping in the True North Strong and Free. Merchants did everything, from ridiculous loss-leaders to volume discounts to move what remained of their Christmas inventory before the lean season of January and February.
So there I was with my father, flipping through the record store bins, and scooping up dozens of albums to fill-out our collection – Joe Pass and Oscar Peterson at Montreux, Mahler’s 9th Symphony, the boxed set of Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier…
It wasn’t really about the deals for us although, to be honest, we wouldn’t have been there if not for them. It was all about the music. A love for classical music and jazz was one of the things that we shared. My father was an audiophile avant-la-lettre, a self-taught music scholar fascinated by things like the variants of Beethoven’s Leonore/Fidelio overture. Alone among my siblings, I shared his passion, and on Boxing Day every year, we had a kind of communion on the second floor of Sam’s, glorying in the yet-to-be-heard sounds etched on black vinyl discs in shrink-wrapped cardboard sleeves.
Our Boxing Day did not end at Sam’s either; we’d carry our haul to the family car parked on Mansfield street, drive up to St-Viateur and buy dozens of fresh bagels. My father would take the “long way home” to the West Island, driving along Cote-Ste-Catherine to visit my Zeide and Uncle Melvin in Snowdon, maybe Aunt Gersha and Uncle Joe in Hampstead, and Uncle Shulom, Aunt Faigie, and the cousins in Town of Mount Royal (“Tanamariah” in the local dialect). At every stop, he would have a coffee, a nosh, and leave behind a dozen bagels.
One of the last stops was the Jewish Golden Age Center on Westbury Avenue. My father, then in charge of the Jewish Family Services unit for the elderly, would drop in, see how some of his clients were doing, and ensure that everyone had bagels, Liberte cream cheese, and lox. On the way home along Highway 40, he’d wink at me and say we had just done “our Santa thing.”
The truth is that, for a Jewish kid growing up somewhat culturally-isolated in a sea of Presbyterians and Anglicans in the suburbs west of Montreal, Boxing Day – along with Chanukah – was the main event of the holiday season. It was my day with my dad, when we would geek-out about music, and that was precious to me. But even more than that, it was the day after Christmas, when everything got back to normal after the weeks of Yuletide fever that had gripped my Christian friends and neighbors, and I no longer had to navigate the cultural alienation that came with it. On Boxing Day, I stopped being “Matt the Jewish kid who will explain Chanukah” and resumed my existence as “Matt, Alex and Mark’s slightly nerdy friend.” It was such a relief, in the post-holiday stillness that descended like a gentle blanket of fresh snow, to be normal again – at least for another 49 weeks.*
It was only much later that I learned that Boxing Day had a deeper significance; something more meaningful and profound than door-crasher deals at record stores. The name recalls a 19th-century British tradition in which the better-off would assemble boxes of Christmas leftovers, sweetmeats, and small gifts for the poor who had suffered a grim and meagre Christmas. There is something stinking of noblesse oblige, and charity privilege in all of that of course, but it also stands in sharp contrast to to the complacent insularity that often accompanies the idealized family celebration gathered around tree and hearth on Christmas. To a great extent, Christmas is about looking inward, while Boxing Day invites us to look outward.
The 26 of December is both the second day of Christmas and the Feast of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr. In much of the Christian world, it has traditionally been a holiday of inversion, when lords would serve their courtiers and the wealthy would provide a feast for the poor. The Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas,” in which the titular monarch looks out “on the Feast of Stephen,” sees a poor family and resolves to provide them with a holiday meal (while his page struggles to keep up), commemorates just this:
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye, who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.
While, like the tradition of Boxing Day, there is a whiff of aristocratic privilege about this – the historical Wenceslas was a brutal feudal lord, and we are expected to forgive him because he gave some peasants a winter picnic – the traditions of Saint Stephen’s Day nonetheless evoke something truly noble. This was, after all, the day when people in Ireland and Britain, many of them poor themselves, would go mumming door-to-door to collect alms for those even-poorer. Historically, the Christian clergy who actually lived among the people, and the wealthy burghers who ruled towns and villages would assemble vast community banquets for their neighbors who might have had little more than porridge and broth to celebrate Christmas. As problematic as any of these observances are, the message of Boxing Day is that there are other people outside our doors to whom we have a social obligation.
I don’t know if my father was consciously acting on this tradition as he drove around Montreal dispensing bagels to family and strangers; I never asked. But he had a deep commitment to justice, decency, and his fellow human being. Tzedakah, the Jewish idea that we have a moral obligation to provide for each other without question or profit, was the guiding principle of his life. I don’t know if he just picked up the spirit of the day by osmosis, growing up on the streets of Montreal during the Great Depression, but Boxing Day meant something to him beyond expanding his record collection. It was about time with his son and, above all, as he would joke as he brought his bagel bounty to the elders of our community – many survivors of the Shoah – about “sharing the wealth.”
* As unbelievable as it seems today, at that time the Christmas season only began at the beginning of December, and lasted less than a month.