Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Catholics, Death, and Transformation

Jamie at Ad Limina Apostolorum discusses a controversial article in the August/September First Things by Joseph Bottum. I confess I have a reaction exactly opposite to Jamie's; it's unfortunate that Bottum received hate mail for the article, but I'm not at all surprised, since the article is a shockingly unrestrained and uncharitable attack (although apparently unintentionally so) on a large number of Catholics, treating them as pagan, primitive, and irrational. There is a much more moderate and charitable interpretation of their position, and it begins with a disagreement at the very beginning. Bottum says of the story of poetic justice:

Unfortunately, it is also, in its essence, a pagan story, and Jesus—well, yes, Jesus turned all our stories inside out. Especially the old, old ones about blood and blood’s repayment.

Well, no, someone might well say; Jesus quite plainly did not turn all our stories inside out. Charity does not overturn justice; it transfigures it into a thing of grace. Jesus did not turn the story of poetic justice inside out; he went it one better -- more than one better. Further, a Catholic might say, Bottum's consigning of poetic justice to the pagan is a typically Protestant error, or at least an error Catholics generally associate with Protestants: it takes something natural, and recognizing that there is need for something more, makes the mistake of condemning it outright. Of course, one can question whether it is natural; but Bottum gives no argument that it is not, and much of what he says suggests that he tends to think it is.

Further, governing, says Bottum, inevitably finds itself in a clash of mercy and grace. But, the reply could well be, is this really true? One can argue quite the contrary: in the common good mercy and justice meet. In fact, to an extent they meet all ready: of the three works of spiritual mercy that counteract the disorder of sin, two (correction and support) are clearly associated with just action; the third, pardon, does not countermand these two, but joins with them. As in personal morals, so in civic morals; Bottum's claim that judges showing mercy fail to show justice is absurd on the face of it. In the common good, someone might say, there is none of this mythical clash Bottum wants us to find. It is true that all human governments fall short of perfect attainment of common good, and in that sense, in the failure of adequate governance we can get what seems to be a clash of justice and mercy: but the clash is not real, because it arises through the failure of government to be both merciful and just enough.

Bottum is, of course, right that the key question is what sort of justice a Christian can allow a modern democracy to claim for itself. But the answer, one might say, is straightforwardly obvious: the sort of justice it can allow is that which is conducive to common good. And no one needs to go as far as 'high justice' to allow an execution; one merely has to recognize a crucial need, born of common good. Beyond that, the 'higher demand' is simply the demand of justice itself. And contrary to what people like Bottum seem to think, someone might say, it is possible to see more room for such a crucial need than they do, and those who do are perhaps perfectly reasonable if they say to Bottum: "It is entirely correct that the progress of civilization and justice has reduced the place for the death penalty. We no longer apply such a penalty to many cases that once would have seemed obvious occasions for it, because we have put into place a better way, one that recognizably fulfills the need while taking justice and mercy both to a higher level. You have no right to demand more until you do the same for the cases where you want more. It is not your place to demand more until you set out a genuine way to have more." And it cannot be said that Bottum does much to offer a genuine transfiguration. It is one thing to argue that we need to bring the death penalty to the point of Virtually Never, since this may be made by anyone at any stage, and sets the end; it is another to label Christians as pagans for not being in such a position, when one supplies them with no means to attain it.

Likewise, a Catholic may well agree with Bottum that in a world too inclined to dismiss the inherent dignity of the human person, a world imbued with a 'culture of death', that there must be a strong presumption against the death penalty in any particular case. But it in no way follows from such a presumption that "the correct prudential judgment would be never to impose the death penalty." To say otherwise is to engage in a simplistic conflation -- one much like the simplistic conflation of the strict pacifist who denies to everyone the right to defend themselves or anyone else. Nor is it the case that anyone need agree with Bottum's claim that "Obviously the penal goal of rehabilitating the criminal is destroyed by capital punishment." That this is false has been shown before; criminals have been rehabilitated and accepted the consequence of death. Presumption is not proscription, however Bottum may try to slide between the two.

So someone might argue. There is no doubt that many people have a cruder view than this; but if a person is interested in truth he needs to take into account the strongest opposing positions. I tend to agree with Bottum's basic conclusion; but I find his argument for it to be utterly horrid. It is simplistic, it borders on self-righteous, it is uncharitable, and it ends up being, in the end, just a bunch of finger-wagging scolding, without any real hint of transformation of society. Transformation enters into the picture as something vaguely gestured at and never really addressed. But the focus must be on transformation, because that is where the two sides will ultimately find themselves reconciled to each other, through a mercy and justice exceeding what either side can bring alone.

SF and Kingsley

Coturnix lays out his list of essential science fiction at Science and Politics. It's a very good list; go and see.

It was the listing of Kingsley's The Water-Babies (which isn't usually thought of as science fiction, but certainly qualifies) that started me thinking about Kingsley; hence the previous post. I'm a Newman man myself, but the Table of Brandon is nothing if not hospitably large, and there are interesting things in Kingsley. In my previous post on Ogilvie and early modern natural theology I should have mentioned Kingsley, because he is a representative of yet another twist on the relation of natural theology and evolution, as is easy enough to see in his essays, "How to Study Natural History" and "The Natural Theology of the Future," in his Scientific Essays and Lectures. Kingsley should certainly not be overlooked in such contexts.

Kingsley on Ruth

Most of you know the story of Ruth, from which my text is taken, and you have thought it, no doubt, a pretty story. But did you ever think why it was in the Bible?

Every book in the Bible is meant to teach us, as the Article of our Church says, something necessary to salvation. But what is there necessary to our salvation in the Book of Ruth?...

Does it not tell us, that not only on the city and the palace, on the cathedral and the college, on the assemblies of statesmen, on the studies of scholars, but upon the meadow and the corn-field, the farm-house and the cottage, is written, by the everlasting finger of God - Holiness unto the Lord? That it is all blessed in His sight; that the simple dwellers in villages, the simple tillers of the ground, can be as godly and as pious, as virtuous and as high-minded, as those who have nought to do but to serve God in the offices of religion? Is it not an honour and a comfort, to such as us, to find one whole book of the Holy Bible occupied by the simplest story of the fortunes of a yeoman’s family, in a lonely village among the hills of Judah? True, the yeoman’s widow became the ancestress of David, and of his mighty line of kings - nay, the ancestress of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. But the Book of Ruth was not written mainly to tell us that fact. It mentions it at the end, and as it were by accident. The book itself is taken up with the most simple and careful details of country life, country customs, country folk - as if that was what we were to think of, as we read of Ruth.

Charles Kingsley, Sermon X in The Water of Life and Other Sermons.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Thus Saith the Preacher

Wrk hard at wateva u do. U will soon go 2 da wrld of da dead, where no 1 wrks or thinks or reasons or knws NEting.

That's Ecclesiastes 9:10 in the SMS-CEV; that is, in the Bible Society in Australia's adaptation of the Common English Version into SMS.

Piety of Attention

This is mostly for my own use; I've wanted to work up a paper on this topic for a while, but the preliminary abstract and outline were tucked away, so I keep forgetting it. I hope that by having it up in my weblog I'll be more likely to do something with it. For the Romantic Passion allusion, see the fragment of Astell's later that I posted here. The 'narrow topic' allusion is to a comment that was made by someone who read an earlier version of the abstract; he said it was an unusually narrow topic, which I found funny since the topic is a general one about Mary Astell's entire corpus. (It was even funnier given that I had recently delivered a paper at the Hume Society, which was well received, half of which was devoted to how to interpret one word in one sentence of Hume's Treatise 1.4.2. No one suggested that that was a narrow topic.)


Courting Truth with Romantic Passion and the Piety of Attention: On the Relation Between Astell and Malebranche
Brandon Watson

When we look at the various ways in which Malebranche influenced thinkers in early modern Britain, the issues that naturally tend to be considered are epistemology and metaphysics. It would be a mistake, however, to think this is the only way in which Malebranche had an impact on British thought. In this paper I consider another sort of influence by looking more closely at Mary Astell. One interpretation of Mary Astell’s relation to Malebranchean themes and ideas can be characterized like this. A major issue Astell takes up from Malebranche, through Norris, is the vision in God thesis, in which human cognition consists of illumination by divine ideas; she endorses it early in her work, but becomes more circumspect in her later works. This interpretation, which seems to be common, is initially plausible. The Letters Concerning Divine Love, her earliest philosophical work (co-authored with the ‘English Malebranche’ himself, John Norris), are very Malebranchean in tone, and Astell's epistemology does at times draw something from Malebranche. This interpretation, however, seems to be wrong. The Letters, although in some sense Malebranchean, are not really epistemological at all, and there is good reason to think the Malebranchean hints in the epistemology of later works are simply terminological. In acknowledging Astell's influences we should begin with her distinctive originality. Astell accepts certain Malebranchean expressions not so much because she is Malebranchean but because she can see Malebranche as roughly Astellian; that is, Astell uses themes from Malebranche's philosophy because, and only because, they are both congenial to her own original mindset and useful for her particular rhetorical purposes. Further, the Malebranchean themes she most often uses are not epistemological at all; what she takes up is less a perspective on knowledge than resources for her own perspective on love. However odd it may sound to modern ears, love is always the most important issue in Astell’s views, even where she touches on epistemology; her emphasis is therefore always ethical, even in her use of Malebranchean metaphysical and epistemological themes. (In this she is not far from Malebranche himself.) All of Astell's work can be seen as an outgrowth of her continual concern for the absolute importance of love for God and her continual resolve, in her words, to court truth with a kind of romantic passion. Recognition of this is key for both an accurate interpretation of how Astell is related to her philosophical influence and a complete understanding of the sort of impact Malebranche had on philosophy in Britain.

The ‘Narrow Topic’ of the Piety of Attention: Astell’s Appropriation of Malebranche

I. Introductory Paragraph
a. Narrow Topic story
b. Thesis: When Astell makes use of Malebranche, it is primarily because he shares with her a philosophical approach that gives ethics a primacy over epistemology. Her use of Malebranche, in other words, is an effect of this approach.

II. The Piety of Attention
a. Malebranche’s Epistemology
1. Interior Teacher
2. Universal Reason
3. Universal Being (vision in God)
4. Universal Good
b. Ethical Primacy in Malebranche
1. Order and Idolatry
2. Attention and Piety

III. Astell’s Appropriation of Malebranchean Terminology
a. Malebranchean Themes in SPII
b. Comparison of SPII and Prior Works
(Basic Points here: Astell never unequivocally commits herself to the vision in God thesis. The vision in God thesis, however, is even in Malebranche merely an articulation of a deeper doctrine, that of Universal Reason or the Interior Teacher. Astell appears to share this deeper doctrine with Norris and Malebranche both; when she shows approval of the vision in God thesis, it is always as ‘commendable for piety’.)

IV. Courting Truth with a Kind of Romantic Passion
a. Ethical Primacy in Astell
b. Thoughts on Astell’s Relation to Malebranche

V. Conclusion

Hazlitt on Coleridge on Hume, Berkeley, and Butler

He spoke slightingly of Hume (whose Essay on Miracles he said was stolen from an objection started in one of South's sermons -- Credat Judeaus Apella!) I was not very much pleased at this account of Hume, for I had just been reading, with infinite relish, that completest of all metaphysical choke-pears, his Treatise on Human Nature, to which the Essays, in point of scholastic subtility and close reasoning are mere elegant trifling, light summer reading. Coleridge even denied the excellence of Hume's general style, which I think betrayed a want of taste or candour. He however, made me amends by the manner in which he spoke of Berkeley. He dwelt particularly on his Essay on Vision as a masterpiece of analytical reasoning. So it undoubtedly is. He was exceedingly angry with Dr Johnson for striking the stone with his foot, in allusion to this author's Theory of Matter and Spirit, and saying "Thus I confute him, Sir." Coleridge drew a parallel (I don't know how he brought about the connexion) between Bishop Berkeley and Tom Paine. He said the one was an instance of a subtle, the other of an acute mind, than which no two things could be more distinct. The one was a shop-boy's quality, the other the characteristic of a philosopher. He considered Bishop Butler as a true philosopher, a profound and conscientious thinker, a genuine reader of nature and his own mind. He did not speak of his Analogy, but of his Sermons at the Rolls' Chapel, of which I had never heard. Coleridge somehow always contrived to prefer the unknown to the known.

William Hazlitt, "My First Acquaintance with Poets"


There's a post worth reading, by Wesley Elsberry, on Christians and truth in the ID controversy. The traditional term for the problem Elsberry notes is the sin of scandal; as characterized by Aquinas:

As Jerome observes the Greek skandalon may be rendered offense, downfall, or a stumbling against something. For when a body, while moving along a path, meets with an obstacle, it may happen to stumble against it, and be disposed to fall down: such an obstacle is a skandalon.

In like manner, while going along the spiritual way, a man may be disposed to a spiritual downfall by another's word or deed, in so far, to wit, as one man by his injunction, inducement or example, moves another to sin; and this is scandal properly so called.

Now nothing by its very nature disposes a man to spiritual downfall, except that which has some lack of rectitude, since what is perfectly right, secures man against a fall, instead of conducing to his downfall. Scandal is, therefore, fittingly defined as "something less rightly done or said, that occasions another's spiritual downfall."

It is a vice opposed to beneficence, the virtue whereby we do good to those in a more precarious or less fortunate position than us. You can read more about Aquinas's views on the sin of scandal at New Advent. Elsberry is exactly right that we Christians should be vigilant against the scandalous, particularly in areas like this where there is a real danger of turning people off of the truth by associating it with something 'less rightly done or said'. It can be a hard line to walk; being diligent in the pursuit of truth is the best guide to walking it.

Two More Poem Drafts

Not my best work, but what is?

Patter on the Pathway

Patter on the pathway makes a sign for rain
heralding the daybreak with gloomy clouds of gray;
but when the rain is over, birds begin to play--
and although the day is colder, my love for you remains.
In the darkness and the storm-winds I have travelled on this road,
and when ill fortune has descended it is weathered in this cloak.
Through death and darkest curses, through sorrow and through pain,
I thank God for storm-brought mercies and the beauty of the rain,
for in my bitter travel through disappointed lands
I hold in heart the marvel of the kindness of your hands.
The storm may yet defeat me with oppressive weight of gray,
but one day I know you'll greet me when new light gives gild to day.


Take up this alabaster box to break;
all its inner essence pour
upon your head and feet, and bless
the courses of my stars with hope;
everything within me bind
in cloth of silk, a cord then wind
that it may from the tower hang,
a gift of myrrh between two does.
Let loose this oil of gladness on your heart;
pour me out until the vial
leaves no more to pour, and live
in incense-glory like a church,
the scent of me around you, like the sun
on vivid flowers, urging spring.
Take up this alabaster box to break
and pour me out upon the gardens.

Horizontal Moon

Perhaps the most stable standing scientific puzzle is the moon illusion. Why does the moon look larger on the horizon than it does when it is higher in the sky? This puzzle, which is still unsolved, has withstood every major scientific revolution in history. However much we've progressed, we've never gotten any traction on it. We have, of course, eliminated certain solutions. We know, for instance, that the moon is not actually closer at the horizon; so it's not an astronomical phenomenon. We know that Aristotle was wrong in thinking it an atmospheric phenomenon. So we've made progress toward solving the problem; we've just never solved it. And so it is to this very day. You can read Berkeley's solution in his Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision. Berkeley's actual solution is almost certainly wrong, but NTV gives us the first truly modern apparatus for explaining the phenomenon; and virtually all attempts since have taken Berkeley's general approach of appealing to distance and size cues.

Early Modern Natural Theology

An interesting article by Brian Ogilvie on intelligent design and early modern natural theology at HNN. (HT: Rhine River) I largely agree with the gist of it, but there are three particular details on which I don't quite agree with Ogilvie's argument, or at least with the way it is formulated.

(1) "Meanwhile, design arguments had little effect on how science was actually done." As it stands, this is rather unclear; since scientists did appeal to design assumptions occasionally even up to Darwin's day (Darwin explicitly takes time to deal with some of them), it's not strictly true that it had no effect on how science was actually done. If one regards things like Cuvier's 'conditions of existence' as having their roots in earlier design argument, then it had an immense effect on the way science was done that way as well, because it was the genealogical source of a concept that survives well into Darwin's own theory. Something similar seems to go for Leibniz's theory of final causes, since Maupertuis formulated and regarded the principle of least action as a particular instance of a Leibnizian final-causes-by-way-of-pre-established-harmony. I suspect Ogilvie means something like 'they had no more than a superficial effect on how science was done'; and that's a trickier argument, since it requires distinguishing between what is essentially and what is only incidentally scientific.

(2) "Natural theology had identified design as the best proof for God's existence." All I take exception to here is the 'best', since it is a dubious claim that design arguments have ever been natural theology's 'best arguments', even for most of those who accepted design arguments. At least, it takes a very, very strong empiricism to be pushed to such a position.

(3) Ogilvie talks about early modern natural theology as if it were all Paleyan; but this is certainly not true even if we are considering only design arguments. Darwin's argument, for instance, has no effect on Whewellian design arguments -- Whewellian arguments argue from natural laws, not particular contrivances. (Ditto with Berkeleyan design arguments, for different reasons. Cartesian biological-design arguments, such as we find in Malebranche and Leibniz, depended on the thesis that animals were infinite machines; but they were never essential to any sort of Cartesian natural theology anyway.) And Darwin himself recognizes this; I'd have to look up the reference, but Darwin has a letter somewhere in which he distinguishes three sorts of things that might be called 'design' and notes that evolutionary theory only directly undercuts the most crude of them, namely, the Paleyan special-creation sort of view. The others can only be dealt with on the basis of more general philosophical considerations.

But as I said, I agree with the gist of the argument. I think the disagreements above are largely due to Ogilvie's using the term 'natural theology' in a very, very narrow sense, which wouldn't have included everything that would have been called 'natural theology' and 'natural religion' in the early modern period. In that sense, there wouldn't be much disagreement at all, since my complaint would just be that the article is misleading at a few points.

Feast of Dedication

Happy Hanukkah to everyone as well. Two Hanukkah stories for you. The first is the story of the Dedication itself:

Then said Judas and his brothers, "Behold, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it." So all the army assembled and they went up to Mount Zion. And they saw the sanctuary desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned. In the courts they saw bushes sprung up as in a thicket, or as on one of the mountains. They saw also the chambers of the priests in ruins. Then they rent their clothes, and mourned with great lamentation, and sprinkled themselves with ashes. They fell face down on the ground, and sounded the signal on the trumpets, and cried out to Heaven.

Then Judas detailed men to fight against those in the citadel until he had cleansed the sanctuary. He chose blameless priests devoted to the law, and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place. They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. And they thought it best to tear it down, lest it bring reproach upon them, for the Gentiles had defiled it. So they tore down the altar, and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them. Then they took unhewn stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one. They also rebuilt the sanctuary and the interior of the temple, and consecrated the courts. They made new holy vessels, and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and these gave light in the temple. They placed the bread on the table and hung up the curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.

Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-eighth year, they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering which they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness; they offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise. They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and furnished them with doors. There was very great gladness among the people, and the reproach of the Gentiles was removed. Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev.
[1 Maccabees 4:36-59]

The second is the story of a particular rabbi's celebration of Hanukkah:

At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly." Jesus answered them, "I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one."

The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, "I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?" The Jews answered him, "It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God." Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your Law, 'I said, you are gods'? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came--and Scripture cannot be broken--do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, 'You are blaspheming,' because I said, 'I am the Son of God'? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father." Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.
[John 10:22-39 ESV]

I think this can be seen as another part of John's opposition of the Temple of Jesus' body to the Judean religious establishment, centered on the Jerusalem Temple (see here).

Hanukkah, of course, is in particular the feast of the rededication of the Temple; but it is also more generally the remembrance of God's providence in the exploits of the Maccabees. One of the most inspiring Maccabees-related passages in literature is from the end of 4 Maccabees, which is a lovely philosophical meditation on the importance of right reason and martyrdom for Torah (arguing that the martyrs ultimately had victory over those who killed them):

O Israelite children, offspring of the seed of Abraham, obey this law and exercise piety in every way, knowing that devout reason is master of all emotions, not only of sufferings from within, but also of those from without. Therefore those who gave over their bodies in suffering for the sake of religion were not only admired by men, but also were deemed worthy to share in a divine inheritance. Because of them the nation gained peace, and by reviving observance of the law in the homeland they ravaged the enemy. The tyrant Antiochus was both punished on earth and is being chastised after his death. Since in no way whatever was he able to compel the Israelites to become pagans and to abandon their ancestral customs, he left Jerusalem and marched against the Persians.

The mother of seven sons expressed also these principles to her children: "I was a pure virgin and did not go outside my father's house; but I guarded the rib from which woman was made. No seducer corrupted me on a desert plain, nor did the destroyer, the deceitful serpent, defile the purity of my virginity. In the time of my maturity I remained with my husband, and when these sons had grown up their father died. A happy man was he, who lived out his life with good children, and did not have the grief of bereavement. While he was still with you, he taught you the law and the prophets. He read to you about Abel slain by Cain, and Isaac who was offered as a burnt offering, and of Joseph in prison. He told you of the zeal of Phineas, and he taught you about Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael in the fire. He praised Daniel in the den of the lions and blessed him. He reminded you of the scripture of Isaiah, which says, `Even though you go through the fire, the flame shall not consume you.' He sang to you songs of the psalmist David, who said, `Many are the afflictions of the righteous.' He recounted to you Solomon's proverb, `There is a tree of life for those who do his will.' He confirmed the saying of Ezekiel, `Shall these dry bones live?' For he did not forget to teach you the song that Moses taught, which says, `I kill and I make alive: this is your life and the length of your days.'"

O bitter was that day -- and yet not bitter -- when that bitter tyrant of the Greeks quenched fire with fire in his cruel caldrons, and in his burning rage brought those seven sons of the daughter of Abraham to the catapult and back again to more tortures, pierced the pupils of their eyes and cut out their tongues, and put them to death with various tortures. For these crimes divine justice pursued and will pursue the accursed tyrant. But the sons of Abraham with their victorious mother are gathered together into the chorus of the fathers, and have received pure and immortal souls from God, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

God bless you all during this festival, which is a celebration of the rebirth of hope after the darkest and most terrible trials.

Happy Boxing Day

Happy Boxing Day to those who have Boxing Day today. Boxing Day is traditionally the day in which the upper class would give beneficences to those of the lower class. Christmas was the day on which you would have mutual exchange among equals; on Boxing Day, you would have one-way gift-giving by the rich to the poor. The day, of course, was not only the day after Christmas, it was the Feast of Stephen, as in the following Boxing Day classic:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing

There are still some people who make Boxing Day a day for the poor, but, of course, for most Canadians, Boxing Day has nothing to do with class or the poor; it's the day you return all the Christmas gifts you don't want and go shopping to get the Boxing Day sales. That's Canadian capitalism for you.

The War on Christmas

The real war on Christmas, in an article at Slate. Some of it is a bit of a stretch, of course; but otherwise, it's worth knowing just how irrational iconoclasm can get.