I Love Christmas, But Not St. Stephen’s Day


When I was growing up, there were many traditions my parents passed on to us children — things they hoped would stick with us. There were the traditions for all the major holidays (like Christmas) and all the minor holidays (like our birthdays). Raucous celebration of these holidays taught us that it’s better to give than to receive and instilled in us a lasting joy.

Except for St. Stephen’s Day. “Celebrated” ninja-style by my Polish mother (while dad hid in the next room, already a recovering victim), St. Stephen’s Day remains my least favorite holiday. With the murky excuse (provided after the fact) that “St. Stephen was stoned to death,” she would wake us from our sugarplum slumbers every Dec. 26 by yelling, “Yassa, St. Stephen!” and pelting us as hard as she could with handfuls of nuts — not shelled pistachios or gentle filberts, but hard-shelled walnuts, pecans and Brazil nuts sent hurtling through space in shells so tough they could take out an eyeball.

We’d wake up screaming and crying, grabbing sheets around us as we ran for cover, diving under the beds or locking ourselves in the closets. Was this the same mother who had been so nice to us just yesterday? The woman who had gifted each of us with a pair of hand-knit woolen socks and plied us with homemade Christmas cookies all day long?

As teens, we became convinced that she flipped out due to an overindulgence in eggnog and hot cross buns the day before. There was no other plausible explanation save for food allergies.

Unsuspecting overnight guests — or, heaven forbid, a new boyfriend who had been allowed to sleep over on the couch — were far from exempt. At the crack of dawn, and still in her bathrobe, she’d silently hurl an avalanche of chestnuts at this sleeping target from across the room, wait until they awoke shouting in terror, then flee — usually with a self-satisfied cackle. It was left up to me (the now “former” girlfriend) to try to explain.

“She says it’s a Polish custom.”

“Like needing three people to screw in a light bulb?”

“Sort of.”

“Yeah. Well, goodbye.”

The ironic part is that, no matter how badly we’d been maimed (by the nuts themselves or by tripping on an errant extension cord while frantically trying to escape), we never seemed to remember this blasted holiday the next year — which made us easy prey.

Every Dec. 25, we’d take to our beds in our warm woolen socks, tummies full of the best cookies on the planet and fall into a deep sleep. Looking back, it may all have been part of her plan (the sugar crash, the slippery socks…).

At its best, St. Stephen’s Day is a very traumatic experience for a child. But now I’m the mom, and it’s a tradition. Poor St. Stephen. Hey, do you want to sleep over?