Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 22, 2008
Is St. Stephen connected with Boxing Day and horses?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
Stephen was chosen to help the needy, gifts were boxed to give to the poor on this day.
As he was being stoned, Stephen imitated Jesus in forgiving his killers. Stephen is considered the first Christian martyr who knowingly and willingly gave his life for Christ.
He is also considered the first deacon of the Church. He and the others were brought to the Apostles “who prayed and laid their hands on them” (6:6), thus consecrating them for service to the needy in the Church. Therefore, St. Stephen is the patron saint of deacons.
Christmas was not celebrated in a special way until the third or fourth century. St. Stephen’s was celebrated earlier, perhaps two centuries before. Even after Christmas became an important feast, St. Stephen’s continued to be a favourite among the faithful.
Many legends and practices, some rather bizarre, developed to honour him. These legends may have developed to explain pagan customs or the customs may have followed the legends. Stephen became patron of coffin makers, masons, headaches and horses. A strange conglomeration, indeed.
But what is the connection to horses? One legend tells of Stephen’s horse being cured by Jesus resulting in Stephen’s conversion.
On this day, horses were decorated and brought to church to be blessed and their feed was blessed. Young men would race from village to village and receive treats. Sometimes, they would ride around the church three times and then the whole family would go for a sleigh ride. In some European countries, Santa appears riding on a white horse, possibly a connection with Stephen. Today, Dec. 26 is associated with sporting events.
Patron saints are intended for protection and intercession in much the same way as blessings are. A patron saint and blessings for horses would be important when they were the chief means of transportation and labour.
Any connection with Boxing Day? Because Stephen was chosen to help the needy, gifts were boxed to give to the poor on this day. Money collected in poor boxes in churches and monasteries was distributed. Families gave boxes of gifts containing clothing, food, etc. to servants. Perhaps, unwanted family gifts were included.
Traditionally, on this day we return unwanted gifts to the stores and stores reduce surplus supplies by discounting them.
Once Christmas celebrations became important, gift-giving switched to Christmas. Today, we focus on giving food and clothing to the poor throughout the Advent season and at Christmas. But for many of these customs, we can look back to Stephen’s giving to the poor and giving his life for and with Christ.
Can we imitate his knowledge, his zeal and his fearlessness for Christ?
(Sister Louise welcomes your questions. You can email her at email@example.com.)
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