In Western Churches around the world, St. Stephen’s Day is celebrated on December 26th, the day after Christmas. In Eastern Orthodox Churches where the Julian calendar is used, St. Stephen’s Day is celebrated on December 27th. St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr who died around the year of 34 A.D.
Early Life of Stephen
St. Stephen’s early life is virtually unknown. Many theories or guesses are recorded but true facts are not available. The most reliable documentation of St. Stephen’s life appears in the Bible within The Acts of the Apostles around the year of 34 A.D. Documented by St. Luke, The Acts of the Apostles describes the happenings of the early church after the Ascension of Jesus Christ beginning around the year of 33 A.D. through the year of 63 A.D. “St. Stephen was one of the many disciples of Jesus Christ and was a man looked upon by many people as having much grace, a strong mind, strong faith and full of the Holy Spirit. He wandered among the people and worked many wonders and signs.” It is however, still unclear how or when Stephen became a disciple.
After Jesus died, more and more people were becoming Christians. Many of these Christians and many other people, especially widows, turned to the twelve apostles for assistance. However, the apostles had much work to do and were unable to assist the many, many people who were in need. They turned to the disciples asking for help.
From Acts 6:3-5: “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word. And the saying was liked by all the multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip and Prochorus and Nicanor, and Timon and Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch.”
Ministry, Trial and Death
St. Stephen ministered to many people and spoke with great wisdom, given by God, to all who would hear. St. Stephen spoke about Jesus and how Jesus was the savior promised by God. Many who heard him speak became followers of Jesus.
There were many, however, that were opposed to the teachings of St. Stephen.
From Acts 6:9: “Now there arose some, of that which is called the synagogue of the Libertines and of the Cyrenians and of the Alexandrians and of them that were of Cilicia and Asia, disputing with Stephen.”
They found people to lie about St. Stephen, saying that he told false words against God and Moses. These individuals lied about St. Stephen so much, that people began to believe the lies and became angered. Eventually, a crowd of people brought St. Stephen before a council called the Sanhedrin, and false witnesses testified against him. Even with the lies and false witnesses, St. Stephen was said not to be angered.
From Acts 6:15: “And all that sat in the council, looking on him, saw his face as if it had been the face of an angel.”
St. Stephen defended himself before the council with a speech (Acts 7:1-53, The Holy Bible, Douay-Rheims Version). He ended his speech by saying “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.” After hearing these words, the crowd became so enraged that they ran violently to him and drug him out of the city where they stoned him to death. Right before he drew his last breath, Stephen said “Lord, lay not his sin to their charge.” With his death, he became the first Christian martyr to die in the name of Jesus.
Gamaliel, a teacher and future disciple, along with some other sorrowful men, gathered up the body of St. Stephen and buried him near Jerusalem. St. Stephen’s body laid there for several centuries, forgotten. Around the year of 415 A.D., a priest named Lucian had a dream in which Gamaliel appeared and directed Lucian to the place where St. Stephen was buried. Lucian was to convey his dream to John, the Bishop of Jerusalem. After the third appearance by Gamaliel, Lucian went to the Bishop and came forth with his dream. The Bishop along with two other bishops, traveled to the site stated by Lucian. Many other people had gathered to witness this extraordinary event. The caskets of St. Stephen, St. Nicodemus, Abibas (Gamaliel’s son) and St. Gamaliel were found at the site told to Lucian. After opening the casket of St. Stephen, the ground shook and a beautiful fragrance came forth from the casket. It was a fragrance that not one person there had ever smelt prior to this time. Some of the people who had gathered at the site were ill from a variety of diseases. History states that approximately seventy-three people were immediately healed.
St. Stephen’s casket was taken to Jerusalem. Around 428 A.D., St. Stephen’s remains were transported to Constantinople and then to Rome sometime during the middle of the 6th century. As the relics were considered healing articles, many countries requested to have them within their borders and many countries were granted this privilege.
Celebrations and Traditions
Countries around the world list St. Stephen’s Day as an official public holiday including Austria, Slovakia, Germany, Canada, Finland, Poland, Italy, Ireland, England, Australia, Czech Republic, Croatia, the region of Catalonia and many others. Often, people of these countries will celebrate the holiday by spending time with close family and friends, and having meals together.
In Finland, in addition to spending time with family and friends, St. Stephen’s Day is celebrated with sleigh rides or horse rides, as St. Stephen was known as the patron saint of horses. These rides generally take place in small towns and rural areas.
In Ireland, St. Stephen’s Day is known as the Day of the Wren. This day is an official holiday of Ireland. The Irish name is called Lá Fhéile Stiofán (Boxing Day) or Lá an Dreoilin (Wren Day). The Wren’s Day celebration began hundreds and hundreds of years ago. One explanation for Wren Day was that St. Stephen was in hiding from his enemies. Unfortunately, he was hiding near a wren. The wren’s chirping gave away St. Stephen’s hiding place and he was found. The wren, therefore, was to be captured and stoned to death, just as St. Stephen was stoned to death. Today, musicians travel from house to house in search of the wren. As they visit each house, they receive money, food or drink as they sing the wren song. This is just one version of the wren song found in an old Irish tale:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephenses day he was caught in the furze;
Although he’s small, his family’s great,
So pray, good ladies, give us a trate.”
Catalonia is another region which celebrates St. Stephen’s Day. In this region, a festive luncheon is served with cannelloni stuffed with escudella i carn d’olla (leftover turkey meat from Christmas day dinner).
In other countries, St. Stephen’s Day is also called Boxing Day. Boxing Day pertains to filling boxes with gifts to give to others. Countries which celebrate Boxing Day include Australia, Canada, Wales, and other Commonwealth communities. This day is a national holiday in many of these countries.
St. Stephen is the patron saint of stonemasons, casket makers, sufferers of headaches, horses and deacons.