by  Francis Weiser (1952)



Saint Stephen (December 26) • 

The story of this saint can be found in the Acts of the Apostles (6-7). He is usually pictured in deacons vestments, with a palm branch, the symbol of martyrdom, in his hand, and sometimes with a stone in his left hand, to indicate his death by stoning. Many images show him. wearing a wreath, which is an allusion to his name, for the Greek word Stephanos means "wreath."so

From early times this saint was venerated as patron of horses. A poem of the tenth century pictures him as the owner of a horse and dramatically relates how Christ Himself miraculously cured the animal for His beloved Disciple. Though there is no historical basis for this association with horses in the life of Saint Stephen, various explanations have been attempted. Some are founded on ancient Germanic ritual celebrations of horse sacrifices at Yuletide. Others use the fact that in medieval times "Twelfth Night" (Christmas to Epiphany) was a time of rest for domestic animals; and horses, as the most useful servants of man, were accorded at the beginning of this fortnight something like a feast day of their own.31

It was a general practice among the farmers in Europe to decorate their horses on Stephen's Day, and bring them to the house of God to be blessed by the priest and afterward ridden three times around the church, a custom still observed in many rural sections.32 Later in the day the whole family takes a gay ride in a wagon or sleigh (St Stephen's ride). In Sweden, the holy deacon was changed by early legend into the figure of a native saint, a stable boy who is said to have been killed by the pagans in Helsiagland. His name—Staffan—reveals the original saint. The "Staffan Riders" parade through the towns of Sweden on December 26, singing their ancient carols in honor of the "Saint of Horses."33

Horses' food, mostly hay and oats, is blessed on Stephen's Day. Inspired by pre-Christmas-fertility rites people throw kernels of these blessed oats at one another and at their domestic animals. In sections of Poland they even toss oats at the priest after Mass. Popular legends say this custom is an imitation of stoning, performed in honor of the saint's martyrdom. The ancient fertility rite, however, can still be clearly recognized in the Polish custom of boys and girls throwing walnuts at each other on Saint Stephen's Day.34

In past centuries water and salt were blessed on this day and kept by farmers to be fed to their horses in case of sickness. Women also baked special breads in the form of horseshoes (St. Stephen's horns: podkovy) which were eaten on December 26.35

In some parts of the British Isles, Saint Stephen's Day is the occasion for boys (the Wren Boys) to go from house to house, one of them carrying a dead wren on a branch decorated with all kinds of gay, streaming ribbons. Stopping in front of each door they sing a song and receive little gifts in return. The wren is "stoned" to death in memory of Saint Stephen's martyrdom. Actually, though, this represents a relic of the ancient Druidic sacrifice of wrens at the time of the winter solstice.36

Saint John the Evangeust (December 27) *

This favorite Disciple of Christ was Bishop of Ephesus in Asia Minor and died around the year 100. His grave was a goal for many pilgrimages in the early centuries, and countless legends were told about his tomb. People claimed they saw the earth on top of his grave move up and down, indicating his breathing, and believed he did not really die but only slept in the grave. Another legend claimed that his body was taken up to Heaven, after he had "slept" in the tomb for some years. All these stories, of course, are traced to the saint's own report of what Christ said: "If I wish him to remain until I come, what is it to thee?" (John 21, 23), a statement the Apostles even then had misinterpreted to the effect that John would not die.38

Saint John's Day was a general holyday in medieval times, not only as the third day of Christmas but also in its own right (as the feast of an Apostle). The significant part of the traditional celebration was the blessing, and drinking of wine, called the "Love of Saint John" (Johannesminne; Szent Jdnos Alddsa) because, according to legend, the saint once drank a cup of poisoned wine without suffering harm.38 The prayer of this blessing can be found in the Roman ritual (Blessing of Wine on the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist).39 In central Europe people still practice the custom of bringing wine and cider into the church to be blessed. Later, at home, some of it is poured into every barrel in their wine cellars.40

People take Saint John's wine with their meals on December 27, expressing the mutual wish: "Drink the love of Saint John." It is also kept in the house throughout the rest of the year. At weddings, bride and bridegroom take some of it when they return from the church. It is also considered a great aid to travelers and is drunk before a long journey as a token of protection and safe return. A sip of Saint John's wine is often used as a sacramental for dying people after they have received the sacraments. It is the last earthly drink to strengthen them for their departure from this world.41

In the beginning of his Gospel, Saint John proclaims with great beauty of expression that Christ is the Light of the World. For this reason it was, and still is, the custom in many places at Christmas time, when all the lights in the home express this symbolism, to allow children with the name of John or Joan the privilege of lighting the candles on the Advent wreath and the Christmas tree. Even if the name is taken from John the Baptist, the privilege still holds because the Baptist had been the first one to see the light of divinity shining about the Lord at the baptism in the Jordan.42

The Holy Innocents (December 28) • 

King Herod (4 B.C.) is considered one of the cruelest tyrants in history. In the course of his reign, it is reported, he drowned his brother-in-law, a youth of sixteen, who was high priest of Israel; he killed his uncle Joseph, his wife, Mariamne, and his mother-in-law, Alexandra. His brother-in-law, Kostobar, together with several members of his family, was killed by his order. A few years before the birth of Christ, Herod murdered his two sons, Alexander and Aris-tobulus, and had three hundred officials slain whom he accused of siding with the two young men. In the year 4 B.C., only five days before his death, he had his first-born son, Antipater, executed.

Like all tyrants, he killed thousands of innocent people whom he suspected of plotting against him. He was so suspicious of his own subjects and terrified at the thought of rebellion that he ordered the people by special decrees to keep busy at all times. He forbade them to meet together, to walk or eat in groups, and he had his spies everywhere, in both the city and rural districts, watching every move of the citizens. Public and private executions of countless victims took place in his citadel of Hyrcania, overlooking the Dead Sea.43

This is the man, Saint Matthew reports, who "sent and slew all the boys in Bethlehem and its neighborhood who were two years and under" (2: 16). How many children were killed? At times their number has been wildly exaggerated as hundreds, even thousands. An approximate figure might be estimated, however, because at the time of Christ, Bethlehem was a small town or village. Assuming a population of two thousand souls, the number of boys of two years and under might be around thirty. Most modem scholars consider even this figure too high and put the number at fifteen or twenty victims.44 In the martyrologies (catalogues of saints' feasts) of the Greek Rite the number of Innocents is still officially given as 14,000. 45 This is clearly due to legends or to uncritical assumptions of medieval writers, for the oldest lists (of the first millennium A.D.) make no mention of the number of babies who were killed. The fact, however, that they truly died for Christ and deserved the honor and title of martyrs is already proclaimed in the writings of Saint Irenaeus (about 200) and Saint Cyprian (258).46

In the West, the Feast of the Nativity very soon occasioned the solemn memory of the Innocents on December 28. The earliest recorded mention of their feast is found in the church calendar of Carthage of the end of the fourth century.47 The words of Jeremiah quoted by Saint Matthew (2:18) about "Rachel weeping for her children" inspired the celebration of Innocents' Day as a feast of mourning; the Church, as a second Rachel, would lament the massacre of its little ones. Hence the penitential character of the liturgy (except on Sunday): purple color, no Gloria, no Alleluia. In the early centuries the Christians in Rome were expected to fast on this day by abstaining from meat and from foods cooked in fat.48

In contrast to this note of mourning, the octave day of the Innocents (now abolished) on January 4 was dedicated to the thought of their glory, the Mass being celebrated in red, with Gloria and Alleluia.


Feast of the Boy Bishop • 

Pope Gregory IV (844) declared his predecessor Saint Gregory I (604) the patron of schools and choirs, and his feast day (March 12) as a holyday for all students and choirboys.49 During the following centuries the custom developed that one of the boys, dressed in pontifical robes, would impersonate the patron saint. He was usually accompanied by two other boys serving as "chaplains." The celebration originally consisted of a devotional service at which the boy bishop presided and preached a sermon. Soon there was added a "chapter" ceremony; the boy bishop would examine his fellow students and also the adult audience with questions on religious doctrine, give praise or reproach, and distribute presents or punishments.50

From the eleventh century on, the Boy Bishop's Feast was transferred in most countries to December 28, for by that time Innocents' Day had become the official feast of students and choirboys. Unfortunately, it was soon identified with the Feast of Fools in many places, and for a long time reflected some of the irreverent abuses of that strange celebration. In the fourteenth century, however, it began to be purged of those alien elements and was moved to December 5, the eve of the Feast of Saint Nicholas, who was the patron saint of children.51 Thus, when the Feast of Fools was finally suppressed in the fifteenth century, Boy Bishop's Day was already safely out of the way and escaped annihilation. Gradually the impersonation changed from the original one of Saint Gregory (which had been forgotten long before) to that of Saint Nicholas. In many countries of the continent the role of the bishop was assumed by adults. Representing Saint Nicholas, the venerable figure now paid an annual visit to children on the eve of "his" feast. Thus originated the charming celebration that is still held in the Catholic countries of central Europe and in Holland on the eve of St. Nicholas's Day.52

Other Folklore • 

During the past centuries, and up to the present, Innocents' Day was the traditional feast of the young ones in many religious communities. The novices had the privilege of sitting in the first places at meals and meetings. In many convents and monasteries the last one to have taken vows was allowed to act as superior for the day. The youngest members of the community received congratulations, enjoyed a holiday, and baby food was served them at dinner.

In central Europe, Innocents' Day is one of the traditional "spanking" days of the ancient fertility cult. Groups of children go from house to house with branches and twigs, gently striking women and girls while they recite an old verse that contains the original wish of this pre-Christian practice:

Many years of healthy life, Happy girl, happy wife: Many children, hale and strong, Nothing harmful, nothing torong, Much to drink and more to eat; Now we beg a kindly treat.53

In German-speaking countries a strange legend and superstition originated from a combination of the Christian festival with the pre-Christian belief that the souls of the dead roamed the earth after the solstice of winter. During the night of December 28, so the story goes, the souls of children who have died without baptism wander through the open spaces around farms and villages, led by their frightening custodian, Lady Hel (who was the Germanic goddess of the underworld; hence our word "hell"). Each child carries a pitcher filled with the tears that it shed during the past year in the solitude and anguish of Hell's dungeon.54 Now God in His mercy allows these children to be saved on Innocents' Day. If a human discerns their gentle cries through the howling storm of the winter night, and if he sees the formless shape of such a ghost child fluttering in the dark, then he must quickly call it by a Christian name. Thus the child can be released from the power of Lady Hel and, bearing a "baptismal" name, it may join the Holy Innocents in the bliss of eternal happiness.55

















Keith Hunt