St Stephen’s Day, celebrated every year on 26 December, draws together a number of solstice traditions. We have already learned of the ancient practice of hunting the wren, the King of all birds (Day of the Wren), and of displaying the tiny corpse around the villages throughout Britain and Ireland. The origins of this custom probably date back to the time when kings were slaughtered after a year in office – and in France up until the seventeenth century the first person to kill and display the body of the wren was chosen king for a day at the time of the Feast of Fools.
St. Stephen himself, according to legend, was once a servant of the biblical King Herod. When he saw the star of the nativity he sought to know more of the Child of Wonder born in the stable, and as a result changed his allegiance to a new king.
The association of the wren killing with St. Stephen’s Day may well derive from a legend of the saint’s visit to Scandinavia. In this story Stephen, having been captured by soldiers, was about to make his escape when the wren uttered its noisy song and awoke his guards – for which reason the wren is said to be unlucky and it is, indeed, considered a misguided act to kill the bird on any other day of the year.
St. Stephen’s Day in Wales is known as Gŵyl San Steffan. One ancient Welsh custom, discontinued in the 19th century, included bleeding of livestock and “holming” by beating with holly branches of late risers and female servants. The ceremony reputedly brought good luck.
St. Stephen’s Day (Sant Esteve) is a traditional Catalan holiday. It is celebrated with a big meal including canelons. These are stuffed with the ground remaining meat from the escudella i carn d’olla, turkey, or capó of the previous day.
Stephanitag is a public holiday in mainly Catholic Austria. In the Archdiocese of Vienna, the day of patron saint St. Stephen is even celebrated on a Sunday within the Octave of Christmas, the feast of the Holy Family. Similar to the adjacent regions of Bavaria, numerous ancient customs still continued to this day, such as ceremonial horseback rides and blessing of horses, or the “stoning” drinking ritual celebrated by young men after attending church service.
Another old tradition was parades with singers and people dressed in Christmas suits. At some areas these parades were related to checking forthcoming brides. Stephen’s Day used to be a popular day for weddings as well. These days a related tradition is dances of Stephen’s Day which are held in several restaurants and dance halls.
In Finland the most well known tradition linked to the day is “the ride of Stephen’s Day” which refers to a sleigh ride with horses. These merry rides along village streets were seen in contrast to the silent and pious mood of the preceding Christmas days. This tradition more than likely relates to the following legend about this saint, who is generally called the first Christian martyr.
The story is as follows:
St Stephen is said to have reached Sweden, and to have established a church there from which he rode forth to preach and teach the Christian message. To enable him to travel the great distances through often inhospitable country he had a string of five horses two red, two white, and one dappled. Whenever one of these became tired Stephen would simply mount another. However, as he was traveling through a particularly deep stretch of forest, he was set upon by brigands, who killed him and tied his body to the back of an unbroken colt. This beast, bearing the saint’s body, galloped all the way back to Stephen’s home. His grave there subsequently became a place of pilgrimage and perhaps because of the association with horses, sick beasts were brought there for healing. Stephen is still known as the patron saint of horses to this day.
The themes of St. Stephen’s day, then, have to do with death and resurrection and animals. The former makes it particularly appropriate that it is on this day that the Mummer plays are most often performed.
From: The Winter Solstice