Even a casual glance at any standard calendar for late December and early January will reveal a number of holiday occasions, some very familiar – like Christmas and New Year’s Day – but a few that may frankly be puzzling.   What is “Boxing Day,” anyway?  So, in the interest of cultural and spiritual awareness I thought I would elaborate on three of these interesting upcoming dates.

Boxing Day – also known as St. Stephen’s Day – is widely observed throughout the British Commonwealth, including the nation of Canada.  It is generally reserved for the day after Christmas, although there are some regional variations.  A very old tradition, with roots in the Middle Ages, Boxing Day affords an opportunity to acknowledge and assist people who are in need and those in positions of service (like housekeepers, hair dressers, etc.).   Sometimes, in the past, employers and employees actually exchanged places for the day.  Benevolence and gift giving are common features of this generally happy, restful day.

Epiphany is a joyful Christian holiday celebrated throughout much of the world.  In our part of the world, it occurs every year on January 6.  Also called Twelfth Night or Three Kings Day, Epiphany is one of the oldest of Christian feast days – actually predating Christmas observances.   It recalls the adoration of Persian Magi (astrologers or “Wise Men”) who perceived Jesus’ birth by way of the stars and travelled to far-off Bethlehem to honor him with their gifts of gold and expensive perfumes.  Epiphany is observed in markedly different ways in different countries and cultures but it generally involves gift-giving of some sort in keeping with the example of the Wise Men long ago.

First conceived in the mid-1960’s, Kwanzaa is a time to recognize and celebrate African-American culture – although it has since grown to include other races and cultures as well.  The word “Kwanzaa” itself is adapted from an East African phrase that means “first fruits” or harvest.  Over the course of a week, people are invited to consider seven principles, among them cooperation, community and creativity.  On the seventh day of Kwanzaa there is typically a feast that incorporates gift-giving among family and friends.  The gifts are often handmade, in part to avoid conspicuous consumerism but also to underscore their intensely personal nature – those who give are thus offering something of themselves.

You may have noticed, all of these annual holiday events have something significant in common – an emphasis on giving.  And not just giving someone a store bought gadget or gift card but giving something substantial of one’s self.  Even if you do not celebrate Boxing Day, Epiphany or Kwanzaa in your home or community, perhaps you might take a cue from their shared feature of self-giving and seriously consider what you may be able to give – of yourself – for the sake of others as we enter the new year.  Maybe you could give some of your time to drive an elderly neighbor to her doctor’s office or to volunteer at the hospital; you could donate some of your plasma to a local blood bank; you could register as an organ and tissue donor; if nothing else, merely give loved ones the benefit of knowing your wishes should they ever be pressed for a decision about cardiac resuscitation or life support, in your behalf.  These are gifts of lasting importance that no amount of money can ever buy.  Will you make this extended holiday season an extended time of giving too?