St. Stephanos is celebrated every year on December 27. Learn more about the saint, and a new tradition to start at home.
St. Stephen was a Jew living in the Hellenic provinces, related to the Apostle Paul and one of the first seven deacons ordained by the Apostles to serve the Church in Jerusalem (thus making him an archdeacon).
In the words of Asterias:St Stephen was “the starting point of the martyrs, the instructore of suffering for Christ, the foundation of righteous confession, since Stephen was the first to shed his blood for the Gospel.”
The Jews in their hatred of St. Stephen lied about him to the people, but St. Stephen with his face illumined reminded the people of the miracles God had worked through him and even rebuked the Jews for killing the innocent Christ.
The people were enraged by what they thought was blasphemy and ‘gnashed their teeth’ at Stephen. It was then that he saw his Christ in the heavens and declared it so. Hearing this, the Jews took him outside the city and stoned him to death, with his kinsman Saul (later St. Paul) holding their coats while they did it. Afar off on a hill was the Virgin Mary and St. John the Theologian who witnessed this first martyrdom for the Son of God and prayed for him while he was being stoned. This occurred about a year after the first Pentecost.
St. Stephanos the Protomartyr
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America website tells us that adorning the Church with the costly pearls of his blood, Stephen was the first to take the path to Heaven that Christ opened by His Passion. His voluntary death for the Truth opened Paradise to him and enabled him to see the glory of God. His perfect love for God and for his neighbor, which extended to forgiving those who slew him, had placed him in the forefront of the friends of God. Therefore the Martyr-loving faithful, who today contemplate the resplendent light of his countenance mingled with that of the star of Bethlehem, rely confidently on his intercession.
The body of Saint Stephen, which pious men had buried, was discovered by the priest Lucian at Caphargamala in 415, following an apparition. It was translated to the church that the Empress Eudocia, the wife of Theodosius II, built in honor of the Protomartyr in Jerusalem. Saint Stephen’s relics were later taken to Constantinople.
The charity of St. Stephen is the reason for the songs and customs which have become the traditional manner of celebrating his feast. The old English carol Good King Wenceslaus tells the children how King Wenceslaus went out on St. Stephen’s day to bring charity to the poor. The snow was covered with the blood of his freezing feet: “Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.” The good king knew that whatever he did to the least of his subjects he did for Christ in honor of the first holy martyr. In Yorkshire, England, large goose pies were made and distributed to the poor. Indeed, the feast was known as Boxing Day, since the earthen banks or boxes of the apprentices were filled with money gifts by their masters. This was the direct forerunner of the piggy bank. Would it not be appropriate if the children’s piggy banks were painted red, or had a streak of red on them in memory of the charity of the martyr, Stephen? Mothers and fathers often buy banks for children to teach them saving. This is an excellent practice. Would it not be wise as well to teach them to be frugal with themselves in order to share their charity with their neighbor?
“Good King Wenceslas” is a popular Christmas carol that tells a story of a king going on a journey in braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the day after Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia or Svatý Václav in Czech (907–935).
In 1853, English hymnwriter John Mason Neale wrote the “Wenceslas” lyrics, in collaboration with his music editor Thomas Helmore, and the carol first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide, 1853. Neale’s lyrics were set to the melody of a 13th-century spring carol “Tempus adest floridum” (“The time is near for flowering”) first published in the 1582 Finnish song collection Piae Cantiones.
Related: “Good King Wenceslas” in Oxford Book of Carols, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928)
|Neale’s “Good King Wenceslas” (1853)|
|Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.
|“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
|“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither. “
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.
|“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”
|In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.
Start a new tradition
St. Stephanos was known for bringing charity to the poor. Here’s a fun new tradition you can start with your children this year. No doubt, the kids get way too many toys for Christmas. So what to do with all the old ones?
Video: Good King Wenceslas-KidZone
On December 27, the feast day of St. Stephanos, gather the kids for a new tradition honoring the Protomartyr. Gather up old toys to give to the poor. You could even learn the song “Good King Wenceslas” to sing while you do it, or play the song. Pack up the toys, and bring them to a shelter, a children’s hospital, or other charitable organization to donate them too. Even better, if possible, arrange for the kids to see the joy less fortunate children experience when they receive their donation.