Growing up there was much anticipation for Christmas and the long awaited Christmas break from school. In my family, we looked forward to the two week vacation and getting together with friends and extended family. With the excitement from Christmas running over to the days that followed, I paid little attention to the date on the calendar after December 25th.
I did not know that Christmas was actually supposed to be celebrated for eight days, instead of just one, let alone that there were other Feast days to celebrate during the week. Now as an adult, I love the Christmas Octave and all of the built in days of celebrating during it. The first Feast day during the Christmas Octave is that of Saint Stephen, which is celebrated on December 26th.
The Christmas Octave is the eight days, starting with Christmas Day and ending on January 1st, the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The church has naturally built in these days to continue to honor Jesus and Mary and celebrate the Solemnity of Christmas longer. Eight days was the number chosen, which can be traced back to some Jewish traditions: the circumcision of a Jewish boy, feast of Tabernacles, and the Dedication of the Temple by Solomon.
Octaves were incorporated into the Catholic liturgy slowly, and were not recognized by Rome until the 8th century. Today we can slow down and enjoy the Octave of Christmas, knowing that the Church has given us these days on purpose.
Saint Stephen’s Feast day being on December 26th is an interesting choice as far as liturgical placement, because Saint Stephen is known as the first martyr. It is important to remember that Jesus’ birth and coming to Earth all has to do with His choice of dying on the cross to save all of us.
We are able to read about St. Stephen and his martyrdom in the Acts of the Apostles (Chapters 6-7). St. Stephen was selected by the Apostles to assist the community of believers as a deacon and was noted as being “a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit'' (Acts of the Apostles 6:6). St. Stephen was the first Christian to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and be publicly killed. He was wrongly accused of blasphemy and then was stoned to death.
Even as St. Stephen was being martyred; he cried out to the Lord to forgive those who had put him to death (Acts of the Apostles 7:60). We can learn from Saint Stephen about serving others in our community and to have faith that God will be with us no matter our circumstances, even if we are not called to be martyrs personally.
Ideas for Celebrating this Feast Day
To celebrate the Feast of Saint Stephen, also known as Boxing Day in Europe, a fun activity is to put together care packages for neighbors. Selecting cookies and goodies and then delivering them is a fun way to get children involved. Bundle up and take a plate of cookies next door or down the street.
While delivering the treats it can be fun to sing Christmas Carols, since the movie Elf taught us that “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear”. Even if your neighbors do not celebrate Christmas, this activity can be a fun way to wish them best wishes during the holiday season.
A Christmas Carol Inspired Dinner
Our dinner for the Feast of Saint Stephen is actually inspired from the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” written by John Mason Neale in 1853. While Saint Wencelas’ Feast Day is celebrated in September, historians note that he was a kind and generous king, and is thought to be the originator of Boxing Day in Europe.
As lyrics of the song say, “Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen. When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.” It’s a play on words, but we take the “deep and crisp and even” lyrics to make deep dish pizza. If you are out and about in the afternoon, you can always order a pizza, but if you want to make one at home as well. Our favorite deep dish recipe is from Serious Eats.
Topping pizzas is another opportunity to let kids take the lead, but you can always make the final decision. One way we like to make our deep dish pizza is paying homage to a local Detroit brand, Buddy's. Signature Buddy’s pizzas actually put the pizza sauce on top of the cheese.
The Feast of Saint Stephen is also a great day to celebrate your local deacon because being a deacon St. Stephen is the patron Saint of deacons. Try making him a card or giving him one of your homemade care packages to show him how much his efforts are appreciated. Enjoy the Feast of Saint Stephen and the entire Christmas Octave, this special time the church has given us to celebrate and Saint Stephen, pray for us.
If you are looking for more ways to bring the rich traditions of the Catholic Church's liturgical year into your family life, be sure to check out the Catholic All Year Compendium by Kendra Tierney. If you have no idea what the liturgical year is, but want to bring your faith home from Sunday Mass—in every season, all year long—this is the book for you. These are a best seller and I know you'll love it.