St. Stephen, Protomartyr & Archdeacon
Third Day of Christmas: 27 December in the East
Second Day of Christmas: 26 December in the West
On the 3nd day of Christmas, we invite friends to join us as we read the story of St. Stephen & pray the Troparion & Kontakion of the feast. We sing "Good King Wenceslas" and "The Wren Song" while the children go around collecting donations for the poor box and food bank from the adults, perhaps while walking to church & stopping by to ask neighbors' along the way. We play our own version of "Hunt the Wren", in which the "wren" hides and the others go to find him. When possible, we go dancing.
Patron saint of deacons, headaches, horses, coffin makers, and masons. He is often represented carrying a pile of rocks or with rocks on his head.
The Holy Protomartyr and Archdeacon Stephen was the eldest of the seven deacons, appointed by the Apostles themselves, and therefore he is called “archdeacon.” He was the first Christian martyr, and he suffered for Christ when he was about thirty. In the words of Asterias, he was “the starting point of the martyrs, the instructor of suffering for Christ, the foundation of righteous confession, since Stephen was the first to shed his blood for the Gospel.”
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Saint Stephen preached Christianity and defeated Jewish teachers of the Law in debate. The Jews maligned Saint Stephen, saying that he had uttered blasphemy against God and against Moses. Saint Stephen came before the Sanhedrin and the High Priest to answer these charges. He gave a fiery speech, in which he recounted the history of the Jewish nation, and denounced the Jews for persecuting the prophets, and also for executing the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ (Acts ch. 7).
During his speech, Saint Stephen suddenly saw the heavens opened and Jesus Christ standing at the right hand of God. The Jews shouted and covered their ears, and rushed at him. They dragged him out of the city and stoned him, but the holy martyr prayed for his murderers. Far off on the heights stood the Mother of God with the holy Apostle John the Theologian, and She prayed fervently for the martyr. Before his death Saint Stephen said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. O Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” Then he joyfully gave up his pure soul to Christ.
The body of the holy Protomartyr Stephen, left to be eaten by beasts, was secretly taken up by the Jewish teacher Gamaliel and his son Habib, who buried Stephen on his estate. They both believed in Christ, and later received holy Baptism.
Troparion — Tone 4
Protomartyr and mighty warrior of Christ our God, / you were victorious in battle and crowned with glory, holy Stephen. / You confounded the council of those who persecuted you, / beholding your Savior enthroned at the Father’s right hand. / Never cease praying that our souls may be saved!
Kontakion — Tone 3
Podoben: “Today the Virgin...” / Yesterday the Master appeared in the flesh among us, / today His servant departs from the flesh. / Yesterday the King was born, / and today His servant is stoned to death; / for His sake, the divine Protomartyr Stephen is perfected through martyrdom.
St. Stephen's feast is famously mentioned in the carol, Good King Wenceslas, and so we sing this carol and read the book today.
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
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gathering winter fuel
Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou knowst 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 winds 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 shall find the winters rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.
In his masters step 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.
Traditions & Legends
Celtic myth had it that the robin that was suppose to represent the New Year killed the wren which represented the Old Year during this time. Wren Boys blacken their faces and go from house to house asking for money to bury the wren. The money they collect is used to buy food and drink for the "wren dance" held on this night.
In Ireland, St. Stephen's Day is the day for "Hunting the Wren" or "Going on the Wren." Originally, groups of small boys would hunt for a wren, and then chase the bird until they either have caught it or it has died from exhaustion. The dead bird was tied to the top of a pole or holly bush, which was decorated with ribbons or colored paper.
Early in the morning of St. Stephen's Day, the wren was carried from house to house by the boys, who wore straw masks or blackened their faces with burnt cork, and dressed in old clothes. At each house, the boys sing the Wren Boys' song. Such as:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little his honour was great
Jump up, me lads, and give us a treat.
As I was gone to Killenaule
I met a wren upon a wall,
Up with me wattle and knocked him down
And brought him into Carrick town.
Droolin, droolin, where's your nest? '
Tis in the bush that I love best
In the tree, the holly tree
Where all the boys do follow me.
Up with the kettle and down with the pan
And give us a penny to bury the wren.
I followed the wren three miles or more
Three miles or more, three miles or more,
Followed the wren three miles or more
At six o'clock in the morning.
I have a little box under me arm
Under me arm, under me arm,
I have a little box under me arm,
A penny a tuppence will do it no harm.
Missus Clancy's a very good woman
A very good woman, a very good woman
Missus Clancy's a very good woman
She gave us a penny to bury the wren.
Listen to the song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fov5HTEJDdk
Sometimes those who gave money were given a feather from the wren for good luck. The money collected by the Wren Boys was used to hold a dance for the whole village.
There are different legends about the origin of this custom. One is that St. Stephen, hiding from his enemies in a bush, was betrayed by a chattering wren. The wren, like St. Stephen, should be hunted down and stoned to death. Another legend holds that during the Viking raids of the 700's, Irish soldiers were betrayed by a wren as they were sneaking up on a Viking camp in the dead of night. A wren began to eat breadcrumbs left on the head of a drum, and the rat-a-tat-tat of its beak woke the drummer, who sounded the alarm and woke the camp, leading to the defeat of the Irish soldiers and the continuing persecution of the wren.
The tradition of going house-to-house on St. Stephen’s Day survives in many countries, especially in Scandinavia, where the day is observed by visiting friends and going to parties.
According to ancient Welsh custom, "holming" (or beating with holly branches) of late risers and female servants took place on this day.
In Austria, Germany and Poland, numerous ancient customs are 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.
The best-known St. Stephen's tradition in Finland is "the ride of Stephen's Day" which refers to a sleigh ride with horses. Another old tradition is that of parades with singers and people dressed in Christmas outfits. In some areas these parades were related to searching for one's bride., and Stephen's Day used to be a popular day for weddings as well. These days a related tradition is holding dances on Stephen's Day in restaurants and dance halls.