St. Stephen’s Day: Christians recall King Wenceslas with 1st martyr

Purple fireworks light up night sky above lighted city

St. Stephen’s Day celebrations in Hungary. Photo by Miroslav Petrasko, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 26: “Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen …” Words to the popular Christmas carol may be well known to most, but do you know the real story behind King Wenceslas and today’s saint, St. Stephen?

Western Christians today observe a feast for the first martyr of the Christian Church, St. Stephen. (The date varies on Orthodox calendars.) Known alternatively as Boxing Day, today’s theme of generosity is supposed to recall the good deeds of St. Stephen. Ordained a deacon by the Apostles, St. Stephen collected money for the poor. In several countries around the world, tradition imitates the works of St. Stephen: participants donate gifts, food and money to the less fortunate. (Wikipedia has details.) Some families place a “St. Stephen’s Box” next to the Christmas tree, so that each family member can choose one gift to donate on Dec. 26.

ST. STEPHEN: BEARER OF THE MARTYR’S CROWN

In contrast to the joy of the Nativity, St. Stephen’s Day arrives a bit more somberly, with commemoration for the Church’s first martyr. Just two years after the death of Jesus, St. Stephen was stoned to death. Christian tradition holds that, while his enemies were threatening him, St. Stephen’s face remained calm and serene, like an angel.

St. Stephen is referred to as “crowned one,” as he wears the martyr’s crown. (Read more at Catholic.org.)

Cupcake tin of mincemeat pies

Mincemeat pie is popular fare on St. Stephen’s Day. Photo by Edward Kimber, courtesy of Flickr

MINCE MEAT PIE AND
GOOD KING WENCESLAS

In the carol story of Good King Wenceslas, the Bohemian prince enjoyed a meal of mince meat pie after sharing it with a poor peasant family. The historical Wenceslas was eventually put to death by his brother for his Christian faith, but many miracles have been attributed to the deceased prince since his death in 903 CE. (Learn more—and read the lyrics to the Wenceslas carol—at Fish Eaters.) Many families bake mince meat pies on the Feast of St. Stephen, reading the story of Good King Wenceslas and singing carols.

AROUND THE WORLD
AND IN THE HOME

The Feast of St. Stephen is a public holiday in some countries, from Austria to Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Romania. Specific customs have long been associated with St. Stephen’s Day in many cultures, including those associated with wrens in Ireland and merry sleigh rides in Finland.

For activity and recipe suggestions for today’s feast, check out Catholic Culture. There, you’ll find recipes for St. Stephen’s stew, horns and whiskey punch, as well as tips on acting out the story of King Wenceslas with preschoolers. Adults can reflect on Pope John Paul II’s Angelus Message for the Feast of St. Stephen, or Pope Benedict’s “St. Stephen: Meditation upon Sacred Scripture in Order to Understand the Present.”

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