For a ten-year stretch in my life I was fortunate to spend every Christmas in Jamaica. In Jamaica, Christmas is a far more modest affair than it is here in the US. For sure, during the days leading up to “the Christmas,” the markets are packed with shoppers and the transports whizzing up and down the coastal road are stuffed to over-flowing with passengers. But people are generally poor, at least where I stayed (on the southwest coast), and gift giving is relatively low-key or even nonexistent. Followers of the Rastafarian religion, for instance, eschew the holiday all together – calling it “Babylon Christmas” – preferring instead to observe Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas on January 7. And some families are more apt to observe Kwanza rather than Christmas.
For most Jamaicans, Christmas is a time for family gatherings and renewing old friendships. Because so many Jamaicans have to find work abroad – in Brooklyn, London, Toronto, Amsterdam, Stuttgart – there are always relatives who come home – “back a yard” they say – to see loved ones.
Where I always stayed, the family patriarch, “Daddy,” would send for a goat to be slaughtered in the backyard on Christmas morning. Shortly after sun-up, the goat would arrive, usually in the “boot” of a Toyota, get strung up behind the house, and then summarily bled and butchered by a crew of rum-swigging cooks. As the meat stewed in a pot full of curry spices and vegetables, the head was seared over charcoal, stripped of its skin, and the brains and bones boiled for goat’s head soup – called “mannish water” because it’s “good for the bamboo.” You get my drift.
Many people in Jamaica also go to church on Christmas day, and even many more, especially those working in the tourist industry – Jamaica’s largest industry by far – have to go to work. So in general, Christmas ends up being a fairly subdued event in the Jamaican calendar. In contrast, the day after Christmas – Boxing Day – is a wild party scene.
Boxing Day is the day for many Jamaicans to go to the beach. Busloads of Jamaicans come down from the hills to line the shores and romp in the water. Jerk shacks, serving pepper-spiked chicken, pork, and fish roasted over hot coals, send up clouds of wood smoke all along the coastal road. Young men push drink carts up and down the tarmac selling Ting and Red Stripe “hot or cold.” And wherever you go, there always seems to be a pick-up truck blasting reggae and dance hall rhythms from a sound system on its bed. In the evenings, the crowds move into the discos along the beach and party into the wee hours of the morning, regardless of whether tomorrow is a work day or not (many Jamaicans who are fortunate to have employment work 6-day work weeks, courtesy of the IMF.)
So where did Boxing Day come from? Most Jamaicans who I posed that question to aren’t really sure. And in fact, the origin of the holiday is unclear. According to Wikipedia, the holiday dates back to Europe during the Middle Ages and either has something to do with opening up the church’s “box” for the poor or with the upper classes giving charitable gifts in boxes to their servants.
But based on the Jamaicans who ventured to suggest a theory to me, the holiday stems from the custom of slaveholders on the plantation to “box up” the leftovers from their Christmas feast and give it to the servants and fieldworkers as a reward for their toil on the previous day. So it was the one day of the year that people on the lowest realm in society could live fairly care free, with nutritious food provided to them and the yoke of unrewarded labor lifted off their shoulders for a change.
That the poor people in life should celebrate the day that their overlords deign to show mercy on them seems ironic. But the idea that the poor should wait for the scraps of the rich before they get to have anything resembling the good life is certainly commonplace – even conventional wisdom. For example, early in my writing career I interviewed a wealthy baron in the global textile industry who proudly referred to himself as “a table-and-scraps man.”
“You know,” he bragged, “the rich man eats at his table and wipes the scraps off so those below can have something.” The article I was interviewing him for was to run in an issue – the “Christmas issue” – of the in-house corporate rag for the company he owned. The editor discreetly deleted that passage before publication.
In the US, “table and scraps” is better known as “trickle down.” Or more recently in the context of the tax debate, “job growth.” We have to, we are told, continually give rich people a break so a little of their wealth can trickle down to our less well off.
For many, this code of conduct is a matter of biblical proportion. However, when you actually look up the passage in the Bible where this truism is derived from, the story is a quite a bit different from what is widely understood.
In Matthew 15:21-28, when a Cannanite woman (a non-Jew) begs Jesus to heal her stricken daughter, he compares her caste in life to that of a “dog,” declaring, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
“Yes, Lord,” she replies, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Jesus is so humbled by this desperate call to reason, her “faith” he calls it, that he then shows mercy and answers the woman’s request.
For Jamaicans, and indeed most of the poor people of the world, dining on the crumbs from the master’s plate is virtually a matter of course. But while they make that worldview into a holiday, we in the US have historically believed that life is supposed to be different. In this country, there has always been the explicit promise that instead of the rich man’s table and the floor below, there is a level playing field where all are allowed to pursue their measure of happiness.
This is what makes the current situation so disturbing. Because what we are witnessing in the US is the reality of the developing world crashing down on the shores of our less-well-off communities. Public schools are being reduced to hollow shells of their former selves. Families are being turned out of their foreclosed homes. And our economy is driving men and women from their jobs or making them work two or three jobs just to keep up with their rising healthcare costs.
And whereas Jesus showed the Cananite mercy, our “masters” in DC and Wall Street seem intent on doing anything but that.
So happy Boxing Day. The third world come to America. Just without the party.
In our preparation for the New Year, let’s pause to consider if that’s the world we want our children to inherit. Or do we want to reassert that bold promise made so long ago that no, life can be different here. That there’s a new testament we can live by. And the master’s crumbs are the indifferent remains of a failed ethic.
[EDITORIAL NOTE: This article originally appeared at OpenLeft.com.]
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