Catholic Activity: Celebrating St. Stephen's Day
Here is the story of St. Stephen, our first martyr. We have an explanation on how he fits in the Christmas season, and some explanation of some old customs attached to his feast day.
Ancient tradition tells us that while Advent brought God to man through the Incarnation of the Word, so the twelve days between Christmas and the Epiphany were to bring man to God. On the very first day after Christmas we meet the first member of the suite of the Great King. The Saviour's immediate attendant is St. Stephen of Jerusalem, the first martyr, for there is no greater love for the newborn King than to lay down one's life for Him. Even though the Mass of the day indicates that this feast was originally independent of the Christmas cycle, the Divine Office unites this feast with Christmas in the most intimate fashion. The children, especially small boys, would be happy to hear the story of St. Stephen as it is written in Matins of his feast day:
Yesterday we celebrated the temporal birth of our Eternal King; today we celebrate the triumphant passion of His soldier. For yesterday our King, clothed in the garb of our flesh and coming from the palace of the virginal womb, deigned to visit the world; today the soldier, leaving the tent of the body, has gone to heaven in triumph. The one, while preserving the majesty of the everlasting God, putting on the servile girdle of flesh, entered into the field of this world ready for the fray. The other, laying aside the perishable garment of the body, ascended to the palace of heaven to reign eternally. The One descended, veiled in flesh; the other ascended, crowned with blood.
The latter ascended while the Jews were stoning him because the former descended while the angels were rejoicing. "Glory to God in the highest," sang the exulting angels yesterday; today rejoicing, they received Stephen into their company. Yesterday the Lord came forth from the womb of the Virgin; today the soldier of Christ has passed from the prison of the flesh.
Yesterday Christ was wrapped in swathing bands for our sake; today Stephen is clothed by Him in the robe of immortality. Yesterday the narrow confines of the crib held the Infant Christ; today the immensity of heaven has received the triumphant Stephen. The Lord descended alone that He might raise up many; our King has humbled Himself that He might exalt His soldiers. It is necessary for us, nevertheless, brethren, to acknowledge with what arms Stephen was girded and able to overcome the cruelty of the Jews that thus he merited so happily to triumph.
Stephen, therefore, that he might merit to obtain the crown his name signifies, had as his weapon charity, and by means of that he was completely victorious. Because of love for God, he did not flee the raging Jews: because of his love of neighbor he interceded for those stoning him. Because of love he convinced the erring of their errors, that they might be corrected; because of love, he prayed for those stoning him that they might not be punished. Supported by the strength of charity, he overcame Saul, who was so cruelly raging against him; and him whom he had as a persecutor on earth, he deserved to have as a companion in heaven. (St. Fulgentius, Third Sermon on St. Stephen)
The charity of St. Stephen is the reason for the songs and customs which have become the traditional manner of celebrating his feast. The old English carol Good King Wenceslaus tells the children how King Wenceslaus went out on St. Stephen's day to bring charity to the poor. The snow was covered with the blood of his freezing feet: "Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed." The good king knew that whatever he did to the least of his subjects he did for Christ in honor of the first holy martyr. In Yorkshire, England, large goose pies were made and distributed to the poor. Indeed, the feast was known as Boxing Day, since the earthen banks or boxes of the apprentices were filled with money gifts by their masters. This was the direct forerunner of the piggy bank. Would it not be appropriate if the children's piggy banks were painted red, or had a streak of red on them in memory of the charity of the martyr, Stephen? Mothers and fathers often buy banks for children to teach them saving. This is an excellent practice. Would it not be wise as well to teach them to be frugal with themselves in order to share their charity with their neighbor?
One of the oldest folk-songs of Sweden, Saint Stephen was Riding (Staffansvisa) is sung at Christmastide in honor of St. Stephen, telling the delightful "Miracle of the Cock." According to this story, Herod would not believe Stephen when he was told that "One greater than thou has been born this holy night." The proof of his words came when a roasted cock rose up out of the gravy and crowed as he had crowed at the break of day.
The Staffan of the song has the features of two entirely different personalities, those of the deacon, St. Stephen of Jerusalem, whose feast is celebrated on December 26 and therefore closely connected with Christmas, and those of the eleventh century missionary, Staffan, who traveled far in the north. The latter was killed by pagans; and an unbroken foal brought his body to Norrala, where a chapel was built over his grave. In all Germanic lands he became the patron of health and of horses, and being confused with St. Stephen of Jerusalem he shares in his honors on December 26, such as the "Stephen-Cup," drunk to good health, and horseback rides around churches and through villages.
With St. Stephen as their teacher the children learn quickly that as Christ came to us on Christmas Day so we must follow in the footsteps of the holy martyrs in our way to God. Psalm 62, used on the feast of St. Stephen, is the first lesson which the young deacon teaches the children:
O God, Thou art my God: earnestly do I seek Thee, My soul thirsts for Thee, my flesh longs for Thee, like a dry and thirsty land, without water. So do I gaze upon Thee in the sanctuary, to see Thy might and Thy glory. . . .
Antiphon: My soul cleaves to Thee, because my flesh was stoned for Thee, my God. (Lauds for the feast of St. Stephen, 3rd Psalm and Antiphon)
Activity Source: True Christmas Spirit by Rev. Edward J. Sutfin, Grail Publications, St. Meinrad, Indiana, 1955