Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Customs on the Feasts of St. Stephen and St. John the Apostle

The Wren Boys in County Kerry, Ireland, one of many topsy-turvy Twelvetide customs
Topsy-Turvy Twelve Days of Christmas, Part I

For most of Christian history, the Twelve Days of Christmas—the period in between the two great feasts of Christmas on December 25 and the Epiphany on January 6—was the real time to celebrate. Courts and businesses would be closed during this time, the firewood would already be chopped and the food already processed, and everyone would abstain from work as much as they could. Feasting and gift-giving did not end on Christmas Day but continued (on and off) for the next week and a half. Even the farm animals got a break from labor and some extra food, in honor of the ox and the ass reputedly present at the Lord’s birth.

Theatrical reenactments of the Christmas story were often held during the Twelve Days, along with other pageants and masquerades. In the home, the Christmas tree stayed up until the day after Epiphany and was lit every night. Families would gather around it to pray and sing Christmas carols. But perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the Twelve Days of Christmas were its topsy-turvy elements, customs that inverted almost every social ranking of the day. Rich and poor, laity and clergy, youth and elder, servant and master, enlisted and officer, men and women—everything and everyone would be turned upside down. Inversion practices are not unique to Christendom: the ancient Mesopotamians had a primitive version of it, and the Romans celebrated the Saturnalia from December 17th to as late as the 23rd with masquerading, loud clothes, and masters either serving their slaves dinner or dining with them (slaves were even allowed to wear the pileus, the felt cap signifying emancipation).
But customs that up-end take on new meaning in light of Christian belief. In Acts 17, 6, St. Luke records the accusation of Jews at Thessalonica who were envious of the Christians as “they who turned the world upside down.” Christianity does indeed turn the world upside down, for it rejoices in the Creator becoming a creature, nestling in the womb of one of His creations and being born a helpless babe. Topsy-turvy customs are a giddy imitation of the ultimate inversion, that God became man and that the King of Kings came as a servant.
In this four-part series, we take a look at some of these venerable, irreverent customs, and we will conclude for more conjectures on their theological and social purpose. But we begin with the Feasts of St. Stephen the Martyr and St. John the Apostle.
St. Stephen’s Day (December 26)
St. Stephen, one of the first seven men ordained a deacon by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is called the “Proto-Martyr,” for in being stoned to death by order of the Sanhedrin, he was the first disciple to voluntarily shed his blood for the Faith. Stephen is a model of that divinely-infused love known in the Christian tradition as agape or caritas or “charity,” for as a deacon he served the poor, and as a martyr he forgave his murders.
Boxing Day
One custom that imitates Saint Stephen’s charity on his feast is Boxing Day. The name may be derived from opening the poor boxes in the church and distributing their contents to the poor; or it may come from the custom of giving servants Christmas boxes for their journey home on their day off. Either way, the idea is that the rich should give to the poor and masters to their servants. In the British and Canadian militaries, this principle has been applied to officers and enlisted personnel. In Canada, officers serve Christmas dinner to non-commissioned officers and NCOs serve stewards. Throughout the Christmas season, “rules are bent in a playful way. Commanding Officers frequently switch roles and tunics with the youngest member of the unit. This soldier then becomes the honorary commander for the day. The remainder of the officers and the warrant officers and sergeants exchange their jackets and tunics for chef’s hats and aprons.” And on Christmas morning in the British Army, officers on deployment go to the beds of their enlisted men and serve them a “Gunfire,” hot tea mixed with a shot of rum.
In many places Boxing Day remains the customary occasion for giving gifts to one’s servants, paperboy, postal worker, and so on.
Not all customs associated with December 26 point so lucidly to the life of St. Stephen. The holy deacon is considered the patron saint of horses, despite the fact that he has no Scriptural connection to them. Some speculate that this patronage may have something to do with the relief from work that domestic animals, at the behest of St. Francis of Assisi, enjoyed during the Twelve Days of Christmas, but no one is certain.
In any case, the association stuck, especially in rural areas. Horse parades, horse races, and a “St. Stephen’s ride” in a sleigh or wagon were common, as was decorating one’s horse and riding it to the church for a blessing. Horse food (hay or oats) would also be blessed on this day. But this is not to say that horses enjoyed every aspect of the feast. In some parts of sixteenth-century England, people let out their horses’ blood with a knife “because Saint Stephen was killed with stones.” Happily, the equestrian motif survives in less violent ways today. In several nations it is customary to bake special breads in the form of horseshoes to honor St. Stephen.
Stefaniritte (Stephen’s Ride) in Austria
Ritual Scourging
Speaking of violence, there was a pre-Christian winter practice of one group ritually scourging another, not as an act of cruelty or punishment, but of kindness: the scourging either drove away bad spirits or imparted the sacred qualities of the tree whose branches were being used. One proof that the act was beneficent is that the person who was whipped was supposed to give his whipper a treat afterwards! 
Christians adapted these practices to their own holy season. In Orlagau, Germany, on St. Stephen’s day, girls would beat their parents and godparents with green fir-branches and menservants would beat their masters with rosemary sticks, saying:
Fresh green! Long life!
Give me a bright ___ [pick your treat]
In the same region, the boys got their turn on St. John’s Day. But in the Saxon Erzgebirge, it was the opposite: young men whipped women and girls on St. Stephen’s Day with bird-rods, preferably when they were still in bed, and on St. John’s Day the women paid the men back.
Childermas or Innocents’ Day, which we will examine in a later post, was an especially popular occasion for these customs. In parts of Germany, children used this day to beat passers-by with birch-boughs and be rewarded with apples, nuts, and other treats. But usually it was the children who got the short end of the stick, awakening on Childermas morning to a whipping from their parents in imitation of Herod’s cruelty to the innocent babes of Bethlehem.
St. John’s Day (December 27)
Like St. Stephen, St. John the Apostle and Evangelist is associated with charity, since his writings tenderly emphasize the love of God. John, in turn, was blessed by Christ’s special love for him. Though Our Lord made St. Peter the head of His Church, He retained a personal affection for the “beloved disciple.” This fondness is all the more endearing given the fact that Our Lord also referred to John and his older brother St. James the Great as “sons of thunder,” most likely for their fiery tempers.
In Vino Caritas
It has been said that St. John was the only Apostle who did not die a martyr because he had already testified to the Cross by standing at its foot with Mary, the Mother of God. Yet this does not mean that no attempts on his life were ever made. The saint’s most famous brush with death (as far as popular folklore is concerned) is when his enemies tried to kill him by poisoning his cup of wine. Some say that when the Divine John (as he is called in the East) made the sign of the cross over the cup, it split in half, thus spilling the poison. Others claim that his blessing neutralized the deadly beverage and allowed him to enjoy it unharmed.
Either way, it is the inspiration for a charming custom that almost literally toasts to the memory of the saint. The Catholic Church has a blessing of wine or cider specifically for this feast:
Benedícere et consecráre dignéris, Dómine Deus, déxtera tua hunc cálicem vini, et cujúslibet potus: et praesta; ut per mérita sancti Joannis Apóstoli et Evangelistae, omnes in te credentes et de cálice isto bibentes benedicantur, et protegantur. Et sicut beátus Joannes de cálice bibens venénum, illaesus omníno permansit, ita omnes, hac die in honórem beáti Joannis de cálice isto bibentes, méritis ipsíus ab omni aegritúdine venéni et noxiis quibusvis absolvantur, et córpore ac ánima se offerentes, ab omni culpa liberentur. Per Christum Dóminum nostrum.
Bénedic, Dómine, hanc creatúram potus: ut sit remedium salutáre ómnibus suméntibus: et praesta per invocatiónem sancti nóminis tui; ut, quicumque ex eo gustáverint, tam ánimae quam córporis sanitátem, te donante, percipiant. Per Christum Dóminum nostrum.
Et benedictio Dei omnipotentis, Patris, et Filii, et Spíritus Sancti, descendat super hanc creatúram vini, et cujúslibet potus, et máneat semper. Amen.
Which I translate as:
O Lord God, deign to bless and consecrate with Thy right hand this cup of wine and of any drink whatsoever: and grant that by the merits of Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist all who believe in Thee and who drink from this cup may be blessed and protected. And as Blessed John drank poison from the cup and remained completely unharmed, may all who drink from this cup on this day in honor of Blessed John be, by his merits, rescued from every sickness of poison and from every kind of harm; and, offering themselves up body and soul, may they be delivered from all fault. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Bless, O Lord, this drink, Thy creation: that it may be a salutary remedy for all who consume it: and grant through the invocation of Thy holy name that whoever tastes of it may, by Thy generosity, receive health of the soul as well as of the body. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the blessing of almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, descend upon this wine, Thy creation, and upon any drink whatsoever, and remain forever. Amen.
It was once customary in Austria and other places to bring one’s beverage to church on this day so that the priest could give this blessing after Mass. Later that night, the wine is poured into everyone’s glass before dinner. The father then takes his glass, touches it to the mother’s and says, “I drink to you the love of St. John,” to which the mother replies, “I thank you for the love of St. John.” Both take a sip before the mother turns to the oldest child and repeats the ritual, at which point the child turns to the next oldest, etc. The last one to receive St. John’s love gives it back to the father, thus closing the family circle. The wine, of course, can also be mulled to combat the cold of winter.
And it need not all be consumed in one day. St. John’s wine was used throughout the year as a cure for illnesses or at weddings, as a protection against lightning (!), and as a preservative for one’s other wine (it was believed that by adding a dash of St. John’s wine to your other casks, the wine would be kept safe from harm).

Michael Foley is the author of Why We Kiss under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained (Regnery, 2022).

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