Then followeth St. Stephen’s Day …
And Boxing Day as well.
When Stephen was the first martyr—
And animals tales can tell.
“What’s a ‘martyr’? Is that one of those creatures that’s half man, half horse?” Brie wondered out loud.
“Oh, no, of course, that’s a centaur!” she corrected herself. “But it’s something old and scary, I’m sure … ”
Brie and Brian had finished a hurried breakfast of leftover Christmas log, warmed in the microwave and washed down with raspberry cocoa. Then they had retreated to Brian’s room and ceremoniously opened their new book, Gateway of the Year: Keeping the Twelve Days of Christmas to the First Day. Each chapter, one per day, had a brief, intriguing summary or poem to set the mood.
“’Martyr …” Brie read aloud grimly in the huge dictionary that now filled her lap … “One who is put to death for refusing to renounce a belief, faith, or profession.’ Yes, I remember now … ”
Brian reached for his annotated Bible to check on it too. “Here,” he said, “in the Book of Acts. It says Stephen was ‘full of grace and power,’ and he had a face like an angel! He preached a sermon and was killed for it—‘the stoning of Stephen.’ Why is he remembered on the First Day of Christmas, I wonder?”
“And what does it have to do with Boxing Day?” Brie wondered as she flipped a page in Gateway … “Oh, yes, here’s Boxing Day. It was the custom for families in England to give boxes of presents to other people—to workers, like Bart the postman!” “Well, let’s box up some of our Christmas candy and set it in the mailbox for Bart, then!” And they did, wishing they had saved more of the ribbon pulled off yesterday’s packages. They found a festive bag and filled it with nuts and individually wrapped hard candies. Then they took it outside to the mailbox and hung it on the metal flag.
“But what next?” Brie wondered, as they came in from the cold, stomping the snow off their boots and breathing huffily. “There’s got to be more!”
“Remember, Aunt Gwen said to keep celebrating, to include more and more people, but also not to be surprised if we encounter a certain darkness in some of the customs,” Brian noted.
“Remembering a martyr on the day after Christmas—I mean, the First DAY of Christmas!—is enough of a downer to take care of that darkness point, as far as I’m concerned. I guess it was like the celebration of Stephen’s birth or death on this date, and it just happened to fall on December 26, don’t you think?” Brie added.
“So, even outside of ‘ordinary time,’ life still goes on! Hey, remember the carol, ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen … ’? Oh, it says here that because Stephen WAS the first one to die for the Christian faith, he is honored right after Christmas. But also—you’ll like this, Brie: Stephen was later considered the patron saint of horses! No one knows why. But in some parts of Europe on this day, horses were decorated with bows and brought to the church, then ridden around the building three times! If the horse pulled a wagon or sleigh, it was called ‘St. Stephen’s Ride’!”
“Here, I found something, too, about Boxing Day,” Brie said, turning a page. “In England the priest would empty the church alms box—money for the poor—and give it out on December 26. It was like breaking open the first piggy bank! So that’s something else we can do. We’ve been saving change for a year or so now. Let’s find a way to use the money for someone who needs something!” “Great!” said Brian.
“I’ll go get mine now … ” Brie was still thinking about the horses, and the fascinating line in their new book about animals having “tales” to tell … when their mom called them down to lunch. “Be right there, Mom!” Brie yelled, then went to pull Brian along. “Hey, Bri—the money can wait. We need to get tanked up and let this stuff settle in our minds. Lunch is still my favorite custom EVERY day!”
Her brother reluctantly set his Camaro-shaped bank back on the dresser and followed her down the steps, toward the smells of warmed-over turkey and dressing. “I think it’s even better the second day—UM, I mean, actually, on the First Day of Christmas!” he said, pointing to his plate.
At the still festively set round table, Mom and Dad were already seated and talking about THEIR plans for the day. “Really, Phil, I think we should take the kids with us … Those people certainly need some youth around them, some genuine cheer. Since we couldn’t take your dad to the Christmas Eve service this year … ”
“Take us where?” Brian wanted to know.
“To Sunny Acres, to see Granddad,” his mom replied. “Dad’s going to bring some family photos with him, from other Christmases we’ve had, to try to spark his memory. He was so confused last week when we went. But then sometimes … ” her smile was a thin pencil-line, not fully cheerful, and it didn’t last but a second. She stopped abruptly and lowered her head a bit, wiping her left eye with a corner of a cloth napkin left from yesterday. “ … But he DOES know us, often, and even asks about you twins!” their father finished the point, as their mom turned toward him and nodded.
“We’d love to go,” Brie offered, though “love” was the kind of word you used here to make other people feel better, she realized, even as it popped out. “Yeah, we wanted to do something good today,” Brian continued. The twins had told their parents about their project—in general. But their secret pact about keeping the Twelve Days went beyond—and was better kept between them.
“We had already decided to take someone a present, since it’s ‘Boxing Day’ in Merry Old England. And, you know, even though we’re in Illinois—we’re trying to celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas in sequence, more like it used to be. Maybe a gift for Granddad and the others at Sunny Acres can be our way to keep the custom!” And so, after lunch, it was agreed that the twins would bring the four glass jars of change—nickels, dimes, and quarters—they had saved up.
The family would stop at the local discount store on the way, and they would find something appropriate for the shut-ins—a gift that would even be for those who might not be able to thank them. Some of these people, the twins realized, wouldn’t even be seeing their own relatives this season … and had perhaps received gifts only from the rest home. As they got to the entrance of Big C, the automatic doors opened and a thrust of wind swept the four Casserleys into the fluorescent-lit mega-market.
“I had in mind a DVD,” said Brian. “Sounds good,” Brie agreed, steering them all toward the electronics section. “But what?” “How about ‘The Nutcracker’—it has the wonderful Tchaikovsky music and colorful costumes, and you can just tune in and out of the film and still appreciate some of it. You know, how some people get wheeled into the TV room, then leave, and others come? It would be perfect!” Brie couldn’t believe her macho brother was opting for a ballet tape! But then she remembered the military theme of fighting the mouse king—and how Brian had always loved their pop-up book of the Nutcracker. It was a story that had something for everyone … And so, though they had to “wrap” the disk in a festive bag rather than a “box,” they now had the perfect offering to share with other people on Boxing Day.
Brian and Brie always felt a little sad, and even unsettled, whenever they entered the reception area of Sunny Acres. Brie reached for her mother’s hand. More darkness, Brian thought to himself. As usual, the nurses and aides seemed really caring … and there was as much seasonal cheer as possible in the red and green decorations and the Christmas music playing in the background.
But nothing could hide the dull, mask-like looks on some of the elderly people’s faces, their slumping posture, or their indifference to what was going on around them most of the time. Every once in a while, a sprightly, gray-haired woman, small and slim, her head darting around like a sparrow or wren, began talking animatedly to the twins. But it was always about something in the past, or sometimes it made no sense to them at all. And she drooled—but didn’t seem embarrassed by it. There was a hopeful gas fire burning in the fireplace, with stockings hanging down from the mantel—and residents’ first names in big block letters on the cuffs. But otherwise, it was just another day at Sunny Acres.
Granddad was in his room, so they went there to see him first. They would pop in, give him hugs, and then see if he was up to being wheeled out with them to go present the gift bag to the director in charge. “Dad,” Mr. Casserley said softly, reaching out to touch the older man on one thin shoulder.
“Merry Christmas! I brought Marina and the twins to see you, and to wish a Merry Christmas to all the others!” “Phil-ip … ” They were all cheered up when the older man knew his son. Maybe it was because they were all together, the four of them—though the twins were almost as tall as their mom now.
As he handed his father a picture from last Christmas, their dad said: “Would you like to look at some new photos I brought?”
“Just leave them there, on the table!” the older man returned, agitated. “I KNOW it’s Christmas from all that Rudolphy music they keep playing in the halls! Marina, kids … I need to talk to Phil!”
The twins’ parents were at once heartened and a bit concerned. Were the aides treating him right? This was the first time in a while that Granddad had expressed an interest in much of anything at all. And now he was completely focused. They’d had to do most of the talking for months, since the stroke that had meant he could no longer live alone, and needed physical therapy in this place …
“We’ve brought a present for everyone to share—and we hope you’ll enjoy it, too!” Mom had begun to try injecting cheer into the atmosphere. But the older man was too distracted.
“Gotta stop ’em, Phil!” he said, pointing a bony finger at his son. The twins and their mom froze in their tracks. But he clearly didn’t mean THEM. Was Granddad really there, with them, or back in some old memory of business competition—or war survival?
“What is it, Dad?” his son asked gently. “Gotta prove it was ours, Son. You think I’m just an old man raving, and I know I don’t always make sense to everyone. But I remember, clear as glass sometimes, when I’m just waking up. You gotta save the company!” Mom looked at Dad, then at the twins.
“We’ve got to tell them, Phil,” she said. “Kids, we’ll explain later. But my dad is right, there’s a serious dispute going on at work, and our family could lose control of the business if the perpetrators have their way. I’d been hoping Dad would start to remember, and be able to work with our lawyers after the first of the year. So you let us talk while you go take The Nutcracker in, and I’ll join you … ”
“Dad,” he said tenderly to the seemingly recovered man in the iron bed, patting his hand. “I’m with you … and I NEED you. I’m all ears … ”
Brie and Brian’s eyes grew wide and gleamed with the light coming in from the side window. This unexpected hint of danger to their family’s business on the First Day of Christmas was by far more darkness than they’d expected. Even in the twenty-first-century world, there could be mystery and intrigue—and maybe even a fight against evil forces to be faced by their own family!
They each took one of their mom’s arms and led her back down the corridor. There, in the middle of a circle of wheelchairs, a nurse was winding up a beautiful gold and white enameled carousel music box. After she stopped and held it high, the gilded, candy-colored horses began to move up and down, in a syncopated dance around the maypole center—to the tune of “Tomorrow.” Some of the residents seemed to perk up at the pretty distraction.
“Brian! There’re our horses for the First Day of Christmas!” Brie pointed out. “And they’re going around something, like in the old custom! I wonder what ‘Tomorrow’ WILL bring?”
Lo, in the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn.
—Traditional, 15th Century.
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