Ongoing battle to keep this day relaxing

OPINION

There's no public holiday quite as relaxing as Boxing Day. The stress of Christmas Day and its family rituals is over. It's just you, the monster crossword, the cricket and a cold turkey sandwich as the cares of the world melt away.

The sheer numbers that attend the Boxing Day Test at the MCG indicate Australia has certainly moved into holiday mood. It's a pleasure to walk around Sydney because it's comparatively quiet. The crowds all head to the harbour to see the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race.

Boxing Day's origins are best illustrated in the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas. It was on ''the Feast of Stephen'' - St Stephen's Day - that the good King called for meat, wine and firewood to take to the poor.

Since the early days of Christianity, the day after Christmas Day has been associated with providing support for the needy - a time for generosity rather than the current day notion of reciprocity. Indeed Christmas would be more meaningful if we had less emphasis on the size of Christmas gifts and were more concerned to reach out to those in need.

In people's working lives this generosity manifested itself in time off and gifts for servants, and a bonus from appreciative customers for tradies and service providers.

For the needy, there was the opening of the box of donations left at churches during Advent, and patronage of poor children by royal benefactors. This all seems a million miles from how we care for the needy today but we must remind ourselves that it was part and parcel of Boxing Day.

So in the Christian tradition, churches have always taken a keen interest in people spending Boxing Day with their families.

There have been many pressures on public holidays as our work lives have changed across the ages and quietly, almost surreptitiously, the case for opening businesses on Boxing Day gained strength.

Despite the images you see of shoppers storming the doors at Boxing Day sales, most shops in NSW are closed on Boxing Day. The Boxing Day sales have normally been limited to the CBD and declared tourist areas that are supposed to cater for travellers. Under current laws, shops that do open can only be staffed by employees who volunteer to work. Most people in greater Sydney actually spend Boxing Day with their family, friends and community, enjoying a day of rest.

However, if the exemption to trade was broadened to include more centres, as business groups have been advocating, companies would find it hard to staff shops with volunteers. Then pressure would mount on other staff to work rather than enjoy their precious little family time.

This is why Wesley Mission, the Uniting Church and a number of our Christian denominational colleagues were especially delighted last month, when we were able to convince the O'Farrell government to abandon its attempt to loosen the trading restrictions on Boxing Day.

The government's proposed Retail Trading Amendment Bill would have diminished the Boxing Day holiday as a restricted trading day, with more people having to work rather than spending time with their families. Those asked to work would be those with little voice to complain.

Wesley Mission and the Sydney Alliance - a coalition of churches, social groups and unions - campaigned strongly against this.

As the legislation was about to be debated in the Legislative Council we convened a forum at Wesley Mission to oppose the bill because it would erode family life. Unashamedly we had been in conversation with politicians and people of influence in our community. Thankfully there are those who saw things the way we did, and such concern came from all sides of politics.

In his benevolence good king Barry had his ministers withdraw the bill and Boxing Day was saved as a public holiday. But let's not imagine this is the end of the fight.

With business lobby groups already grumbling at the outcome, it seems the price of a public holiday is eternal vigilance. Nobody should be under any doubt that this is the thin end of a mighty wedge, which has Good Friday and Easter Day in its sights.

So as you contemplate the cold turkey, keep in mind how important Boxing Day is and how people have fought to keep it special for you and your family.

Reverend Dr Keith Garner is the superintendent and chief executive of Wesley Mission.

smh.com.au

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