We Catalans eat a big meal on Christmas Day, with some delicious food followed by neules, torrons, Christmas carols and poems. And the following day, St Stephen’s Day, we do it again. But why is St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day) such a firmly rooted custom here when it isn’t celebrated in the rest of Spain? The booklet ‘Celebrem el Nadal’ (Let’s celebrate Christmas), by Amadeu Carbó, has the answer to this puzzle and a good many more besides, because the idea behind it was to explain the reason for lots of Christmas customs and traditions.
Carbó says that St Stephen’s Day is a unique feature of the Catalan calendar linked to our Carolingian past. In the 9th century Old Catalonia belonged to the empire founded by Charlemagne and came under the Bishop of Narbonne, in contrast to the rest of the Christian Iberian peninsula, dominated by the Goths and under the Bishop of Toledo. That meant they had very different concepts of the family. The Carolingian family was very extended, like a clan, so when there was an important festival they had to travel to the family home.
Christmas, for example, the biggest date on the religious calendar, brought the whole family together round the family hearth. And since journeys were usually long in the Middle Ages, the darkness intense and the means of transport precarious, people needed time to return home the next day. So, initially, St Stephen’s Day was a day when people didn’t work, which is not exactly the same as having a celebration. This is well explained by the proverb: Per Nadal cada ovella al seu corral / per Sant Esteve, cadascú a casa seva – sheep in their pen on Christmas Day, people in their home on St Stephen’s Day.
And here, not only do we have the reason why we celebrate St Stephen’s Day, it also explains why Catalans celebrate Easter and Pentecost (Whit Sunday), the three most important festivals on the religious calendar. What’s more, this custom links us with the rest of Europe, because it has survived in other places that came under Carolingian influence and which, over the centuries, have ended up becoming the main states in Europe.