Published: 18-03-2010, 05:22

St. Stephen’s Day

St. Stephen lived during the time of the Apostles and the founding of the Christian Church. The Book of Acts (chapters 6 and 7) describes Stephen as a man “full of grace and power,” as well as a skilled speaker. He was stoned to death around 35 A.D. for his religious beliefs, becoming the first Christian martyr. His feast day falls on December 26, the second of the TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS.

Three Christian festivals follow in close succession upon Christmas Day. St. Stephen’s Day occurs on December 26, ST. JOHN’S DAY on December 27, and HOLY INNOCENTS’ DAY on December 28. These commemorative days were established by the late fifth century. The figures they honor share two characteristics in common. These characteristics motivated Church authorities to schedule their commemorative days close together in the CHRISTMAS SEASON. Stephen, John, and the Innocents all lived during the time of Christ, and each was connected in a special way to his life and teachings. In addition, all became martyrs for him. In fact, Stephen, John, and the Innocents represent all the possible combinations of the distinction between martyrs in will and martyrs in deed. The children slaughtered at King HEROD’s orders in BETHLEHEM did not choose their fate, but suffered it nonetheless, and so were considered martyrs in deed. St. John willingly risked death in defense of the Christian faith, but did not suffer death, and so was considered a martyr in will. St. Stephen risked and suffered death for his faith, thus becoming a martyr in will and deed.
During the Middle Ages many legends arose about beloved saints, especially when biblical or historical accounts of their lives failed to provide sufficient details. An old English CHRISTMAS CAROL about St. Stephen illustrates this tendency. The carol dates back to the year 1400 and depicts the saint as a kitchen servant in King Herod’s castle at the time of JESUS’birth:

Stephen out of the kitchen came, with boar’s head on hand, He saw a star was fair and bright over Bedlem stand.
He cast down the boar’s head and went into the hall, I forsake thee, King Herod, and thy works all.
I forsake thee, King Herod, and thy works all. There is a child in Bedlam born is better than we all [Duncan, 1992, 63-64].

With his great hall and BOAR’S HEAD supper, the King Herod of this writer’s imagination resembles a medieval English lord more closely than he does a king of ancient Judea.

Perhaps Stephen’s death at the hands of a stone-throwing mob explains how he later became the patron saint of stonecutters and bricklayers. It is somewhat more difficult to explain how he became the patron saint of horses in many European countries, since they play no role in the story of his life or death. Nevertheless, throughout central and northern Europe many old folk customs associated with St. Stephen’s Day feature horses. In rural Austria people decked their horses with ribbons and brought them to the local priest to receive a blessing. Afterwards the horses fed on blessed oats in order to insure their health and well-being in the coming year. In past centuries English and Welsh folklore recommended the running, and then bleeding, of horses on St. Stephen’s Day. In those days people believed that this practice, which consisted of making a small cut in the horse’s skin and letting some blood drain out, promoted good health. Horses were also bled in parts of Austria and GERMANY on St. Stephen’s Day. Various German folk customs also advocated the riding or racing of horses on St. Stephen’s Day. In Munich men on horseback entered the church during St. Stephen’s Day services and rode three times around the sanctuary. Hundreds of riders and their beribboned horses participated in this custom, which was not abandoned until 1876.
Other customs at one time associated with St. Stephen’s Day include the Wren Hunt in IRELAND, WALES, and ENGLAND, and the blessing of fields and straw in southern FRANCE, where the day was also known as “Straw Day.” In past centuries the Welsh celebrated December 26 as “Holming Day.” On this day men and boys struck each other on the legs with HOLLY branches. In some areas men thrashed women and girls about the arms with the branches. The spiny holly leaves quickly drew blood. Although some people interpreted the custom as a reminder of the bloody death of St. Stephen, it may also have originated from the belief that periodic blood-letting ensured good health.
A few final customs associated with St. Stephen’s Day reflect a somewhat closer connection to the saint. In POLAND people confer St. Stephen’s Day blessings by throwing handfuls of rice, oats, or walnuts at one another. This act symbolizes the stoning of St. Stephen. In past centuries the English gave small GIFTS of money to all those who provided them with services during the year. These tips were called “boxes,” thus, St. Stephen’s Day became known as BOXING DAY. In a small way this practice served to redistribute wealth in the community. Since St. Stephen’s role in the Christian community of which he was a member was to ensure the fair distribution of goods, perhaps this custom can be said to reflect the saint’s earthly vocation.

Old Swedish and Norwegian traditions also encouraged the racing of horses on St. Stephen’s Day (see also CHRISTMAS IN NORWAY). In past centuries, horse races sometimes followed St. Stephen’s Day church services. Folk belief suggested that the man who won the race would be the first to harvest his crops. The Swedish historian Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) mentioned these races in his writings, and they are believed to date back to medieval times. In rural areas mounted men raced each other to the nearest north-flowing stream or ice-free spring in the early morning hours, believing that the horse that drank first would stay healthy throughout the year.
The most noted Swedish St. Stephen’s Day custom, however, involved bands of men on horseback called “Stephen’s men” or “Stephen’s riders.” On St. Stephen’s Day they rose before dawn and galloped from village to village singing folk songs about the saint. These robust performances awakened householders, who then refreshed Stephen’s men with ale or other alcoholic beverages. Today one can still see bands of young men, often in traditional costumes, singing folk songs from door to door on St. Stephen’s Day.
Swedish folklore implies that the country’s St. Stephen’s Day cus-toms do not honor the St. Stephen of the New Testament, but rather a medieval saint of the same name who spread Christianity in Sweden. According to legend, the medieval Stephen loved horses and owned five of them. When one tired, he mounted another in order to spare the beasts without interrupting his tireless missionary efforts. The Stephen riders are thus thought by some scholars to represent the saint and his devoted followers.
Other scholars, however, doubt the existence of the medieval St. Stephen. They propose instead that legends concerning the medie-val saint arose to explain persistent pre-Christian customs associat-ed with the day. These researchers note that horses were sacred to the cult of Frey, the Scandinavian god of sunlight, fertility, peace, and plenty (see also YULE). Other experts trace the origin of St. Stephen’s Day horse riding back to the ancient Roman custom of racing horses around the time of the WINTER SOLSTICE.