St. Stephen's Day

Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Wikipedia.
Related to St. Stephen's Day: Boxing Day

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 gious beliefs, becoming the first Christian martyr. His feast day falls on December 26, the second of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

History and Legend

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.

European Customs

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.

Swedish Customs and Lore

Old Swedish and Norwegian traditions also encouraged the racing of horses on St. Stephen's Day (see also Norway, Christmas in). 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 customs 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 medieval saint arose to explain persistent pre-Christian customs associated 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.

Further Reading

Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Chambers, Robert. "December 26 - St. Stephen's Day." In his The Book ofDays. Volume 2. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Duncan, Edmondstoune. The Story of the Carol. 1911. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. Hadfield, Miles, and John Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1961. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, andCelebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1997. Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976. MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Murray, Alexander. "Medieval Christmas." History Today 36, 12 (December 1986): 31-39. Ross, Corinne. Christmas in Scandinavia. Chicago: World Book, 1977. Urlin, Ethel. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

St. Stephen's Day (Boxing Day)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: December 26
Where Celebrated: Australia, Austria, Canada, England, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Sweden, and other Christian nations
Symbols and Customs: Christmas Box, Horse, Wren
Related Holidays: Christmas


St. Stephen became the first Christian martyr on this day, December 26, somewhere between 31 and 35 C . E . According to the New Testament book of Acts, Stephen was chosen by the Apostles as one of the first seven deacons of the church in Jerusalem. He was later denounced as a blasphemer by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council in ancient Palestine, and stoned to death outside the gate of Jerusalem that now bears his name. Stephen's death is considered an example of the highest class of martyrdom, because he intentionally gave his life for Christ.

The basis of saint day remembrances-for St. Stepehen as well as other saints-is found in ancient Roman tradition. On the anniversary of a death, families would share a ritual meal at the grave site of an ancestor. This practice was adopted by Christians who began observing a ritual meal on the death anniversary of ancestors in the faith, especially martyrs. As a result, most Christian saint days are associated with the death of the saint. There are three important exceptions. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus are honored on their nativities (birthdays). Many who suffered martyrdom are remembered on saint days in the calendars of several Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects.

In England, Australia, Canada, and many other countries, the day after CHRISTMAS is Boxing Day. There are a number of theories about where this holiday got its name. Some point to the church alms-box, the contents of which were not dispensed until the day after Christmas. The most popular explanation is that it was named after the earthenware CHRISTMAS BOXES that servants and tradespeople used to carry around to collect tips and end-of-the-year bonuses. Some people believe that it comes from the Arabic backsheesh, meaning "gratuity." Crusaders brought this word back with them, and it became common for anyone who had rendered service to another person during the year to expect backsheesh at Christmas.


Christmas Box

At one time, every ship that went off on a long voyage kept a box on board for donations to the priest who, in return, was expected to offer masses for the safety of the ship and its sailors. The box was not to be opened until the vessel returned. If the voyage had been rough, it was usually quite full. Because mass at that time was called Christ-mass, the boxes kept to pay for it were called "Christmass Boxes."

A relic of these ancient boxes can be seen in the earthenware or wooden boxes with slits in the top used by servants and children in nineteenth-century England to gather money during the Christmas season, giving rise to the name Boxing Day. Servants, apprentices, and tradespeople, especially in London, broke their boxes open as soon as Christmas was over. Christmas boxes were also associated with the custom of "doling," in which bands of young, poor, and often rowdy people went around demanding gifts of money and food from the wealthy and privileged. In the 1820s and 1830s, the English custom of Christmas boxes was transformed into the Victorian custom of exchanging Christmas gifts.

The earthen savings box can still be found in the Netherlands, where it is commonly made in the shape of a pig, much like the American piggy bank. It is considered bad luck to break open this box, known as "The Feast Pig," before Christmas.


St. Stephen is the patron saint of horses. According to a Swedish legend, he had five of them. As he made his rounds preaching the word of God and one of his horses got tired, he simply mounted the next. After his death, his body was tied to St. Stephen's Day

the back of an unbroken colt, which brought him back to his hometown, Norrala, to be buried. The church that was later built on the site of his grave became a place of pilgrimage to which owners brought their sick animals, particularly horses, for healing. Some scholars think that this legendary Swedish St. Stephen is a mythical figure rather than the New Testament martyr, and that the legend surrounding him and his horses was an attempt to account for the folk customs that were already well established on this day.

In England, at one time horses were bled on St. Stephen's Day in the belief that it would benefit them-a custom that is still carried out in some parts of Austria. During St. Stephen's Day services in Munich, Germany, it was customary for more than 200 men on horseback to ride three times around the interior of a church, a practice that wasn't abolished until 1876. Horse races are common on this day, and horses are often fed consecrated salt or bread as a good-luck charm.

The customs associated with horses on this day appear to be non-Christian in origin. It is possible that horses were sacrificed or slaughtered on this day in pagan times, and that the horse races that often took place were a prelude to some kind of purification ceremony for houses and fields. (See also ST. GEORGE'S DAY.)


In England and Ireland it was the custom on the day after Christmas to "hunt the wren." Young men and boys would dress up in leaves and branches to go out hunting, and after they had killed a bird, they fastened it to the top of a long pole and went from house to house collecting money. In some areas, a feather from the wren was exchanged for a small donation and then kept as protection against shipwreck during the coming year. After all the houses in the village had been visited, the wren was laid out on a funeral bier and carried to the churchyard, where it was buried with great solemnity. Sometimes the bird was boiled and eaten.

Known as "the king of birds," the wren was probably once regarded as sacred. Hunting it at Christmastime may have been all that remained of the primitive custom of slaying the divine animal. Carrying its body from door to door was apparently intended to convey to each house a portion of the bird's virtues. Eating the bird may have originally been some sort of communion feast.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Crippen, T.G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Hervey, Thomas K. The Book of Christmas. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1888. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. 1912. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992.


Australian Media

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

St. Stephen's Day

December 26
On this day in c. 35, St. Stephen became the first Christian martyr. The New Testament book of Acts records that Stephen was chosen by the Apostles as one of the first seven deacons of the church in Jerusalem. He was later denounced as a blasphemer by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council in ancient Palestine, and stoned to death. St. Stephen is the patron saint of bricklayers.
December 26, 27, and 28, otherwise known respectively as St. Stephen's Day, St. John the Evangelist's Day, and Holy Innocents' Day, are considered examples of the three different degrees of martyrdom. St. Stephen's death is an example of the highest class of martyrdom—that is to say, both in will and in deed. St. John the Evangelist, who showed that he was ready to die for Christ but was prevented from actually doing so, exemplifies martyrdom in will, but not in deed. And the children who lost their lives in the slaughter of the Innocents provide an example of the martyrdom in deed but not in will.
In many countries, St. Stephen's Day is celebrated as an extra Christmas holiday. In England, it is known as Boxing Day. In Austria, priests bless the horses because St. Stephen is their patron. In Poland tossing rice at each other symbolizes blessings and recalls Stephen's stoning. And in Ireland, boys with blackened faces carrying a paper wren, go about begging and "hunting the wren." The hunting of the wren is most likely a carryover from an old belief that the robin, symbolizing the New Year, killed the wren, symbolizing the Old, at the turning of the year.
See also San Estevan, Feast of
Dingle Peninsula Tourism
Comharchumann Turasoireachta Chorca Dhuibhne
Dingle, County Kerry Ireland
353-66-9151188; fax: 353-66-9151991
BkDays-1864, vol. II, p. 763
BkFest-1937, p. 35
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 321
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 950
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 686
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 249
FestWestEur-1958, p. 104
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 540
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 768
OxYear-1999, p. 532
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 40

Celebrated in: Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, San Marino

St. Stephen's Day (Hungary)
August 20
Hungary celebrates three national days, according to a 1991 state mandate. The founding of Hungary is commemorated on August 20, which is also the feast day of the founder of the country, St. Stephen of Hungary (c. 975-1038). He assumed the kingship in 1000 and worked to unite the various clans into a single Christian state. In 1950 the day was changed to Constitution Day by the communist regime, but since 1990, it has again celebrated St. Stephen.
Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Hungary
Bem rkp. 47 1027 Budapest, Bem rakpart 47
Budapest, H-1027 Hungary
36-1-458-1000; fax: 36-1-212-5918
OxYear-1999, p. 340

Celebrated in: Hungary

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
Colm Murphy's unbeaten mare, so impressive when landing the Stan James Christmas Hurdle at Sandown on St. Stephen's Day and favourite with some firms for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, is injured and faces a race against time to be ready for Cheltenham on March 14.
And HONEST YER HONOUR, locally trained by Robbie Osborne and a very impressive winner at Leopardstown on St. Stephen's Day, is napped to defy a 13lb.
But it was St. Stephen's Day for Ireland as Stephen Paisley and Stephen Elliott got the goals to leave Gerry Smith's 'Desert Stormers' on the verge of the last 16 of UAE 2003.