For the past few days, I have found myself humming and singing the first few bars of “Good King Wenceslas”. As you may recall, it begins “Good King Wenseslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen, When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even…” As I looked up the lyrics this morning, I found out more about the Feast of Stephen, celebrated today, December 26 by Western Christians and tomorrow, December 27 by Eastern Orthodox Christians (Julian Calendar). Like many differences between the Western and Eastern Catholic Christian traditions, the differences in the dates is due to the different calendars that have been used traditionally. St. Stephen, is considered the first Christian martyr. Mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen was tried by the Sanhedrin for blasphemy and was stoned to death in 35 CE for speaking publicly about the Laws of Moses, the abuses of the Temple, and of his visions.
St. Stephen has become the subject of hagiography (literature meant to tell of the life and actions of significant people). When we tell the story of Stephen, we begin with his name. There are many versions of what his name means. His Greek name, Stephanos, means crown, and comes from the Hebrew word for norm, rule, standard. This reasoning is used to support the story that Stephen’s martrydom set the norm for Christians who believed they had to suffer for Christ. Another version of the story says that his name comes from the “strenue fans”, meaning “one who speaks strongly, forcefully.” Another version has his name coming from “strenue fans anus,” meaning “one who speaks with zeal to the aged.” Stephen was one of the first of seven deacons appointed by Christ’s apostles. His torture and death took place on August 3 in the same year that Jesus was crucified. During the stoning, it is reported that Stephen cried out, “Behold, I see the heavens open and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.”
St. Stephen’s Day is celebrated and is a public holiday in many countries that were historically Catholic, Anglican, or Lutheran, including: Austria, Poland, the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain (where it is called Boxing Day), Canada, Spain, Finland, the Phillipines, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, Denmark, and Australia. Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic traditions, celebrate St. Stephen’s Day on December 27 according to the Byzantine rite. There are numerous sites where St. Stephen is commemorated. A number of churches are named after the saint. Stephensdom in Vienna, Austria, where the Cathedral of St. Stephen has the tallest spire and is the most famous church in Austria. In Old Jerusalem, the Lion’s Gate is also known as St. Stephen’s gate, and legend has it, this is the site of Stephen’s stoning.
Some of the traditions associated with the Feast of Stephen include the Spanish Catalonian tradition celebrating Sant Esteve (St. Stephen) with a big feast and the traditional food, canelons, a pasta dish using the ground meats of the Christmas feast. In Ireland, St. Stephen’s Day is called, La Fhelile Stiofan or La an Dreoilin, meaning Wren’s Day. The traditions of Ireland are based on the association of the wren with different aspects of the life of Jesus. The Irish tradition is to Carry a bird in a cage from house to house, singing and dancing along the way. In some villages, a Mummer’s Festival is held. Over time, some of the traditions have become lost. In the Irish Times, one reader commented that it has become nothing more than just another day to shop. In order to keep traditions alive with meaning, we need to continue to tell the stories, and create celebrations that engage us. Along with the commemoration of the birth of Jesus that we celebrate on Christmas, there are other traditions related to the lives of those in whose footsteps we follow.
Whatever your spiritual tradition, learn more about the past in order to give meaning to your present. Pass the stories along to your children and grandchildren. When we stop telling the stories, they die. Find ways to tell the old stories, giving meaning to the times in which we live and to the lives we live. Do it through poetry, music, dance and traditions around feasts such as the Feast of St. Stephen.