Feast of St. Stephen and Wenceslaus, Boxing Day, mincemeat, too

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 26: The second day of Christmastide dawns in honor of the saint traditionally identified as Christianity’s first deacon and martyr: St. Stephen. (Note: In the Orthodox Christian tradition, St. Stephen is recognized one day later, on Dec. 27, per the Gregorian calendar.)

According to traditional accounts: St. Stephen was a deacon renowned for his care of the poor, and was held in high esteem by the Apostles. When the Apostles realized that their time would be devoted to preaching and no longer to caring for the poor, they appointed seven deacons for the task. One of the seven appointed deacons was Stephen. However, his persistent preaching led to trouble and, one day, he was stoned to death outside Jerusalem. (Learn more from the Catholic site, FishEaters.)


The Feast of St. Stephen has been observed for centuries, from Irish traditions related to wrens to the famous carol starring Good King Wenceslaus. (Find traditions, activities for the day, recipes and more at Catholic Culture.)

Down through the centuries, Christians have remembered St. Wenceslaus as a Bohemian duke born ca. 907 CE whose rejection of paganism earned him persecution by his mother and brother. When King Wenceslaus “looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,” he had just finished sharing a meal of mincemeat pie with the poor—fittingly, as the feast recalls a deacon whose responsibility was to care for the poor. (Wikipedia has details.) In many countries, Dec. 26 is known as Boxing Day,” when money saved throughout the year is distributed to the poor. St. Stephen’s Day pies and mincemeat pies are popular in many English-speaking countries. (BBC offers a hearty recipe.)


According to the Roman Catholic calendar, Christmas is the first day of the Christmas Octave. Following Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen, the Feast of John the Apostle and the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Martyrs are collectively recognized for their respective sacrifices through these days until Jan. 1, which brings the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Each year, the Feast of the Holy Family falls on the Sunday within the Octave.

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

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.


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.)


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.


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.”