The Feast of Stephen
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
Gath'ring winter fuel
On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
Two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.
They are both a bit of silliness, but they serve to remind faithful people that the celebration of Christmas is a season and not just a single day. Most of our community will be going back to work today as if Christmas is over. Retail stores will put their Christmas items on closeout and start decorating for the next holiday, probably Valentine’s Day. St. Stephen’s Day isn’t a big holiday around here.
The carol about Good King Wenceslas was written in 1853 to a tune that dates back another 300 years and probably has its roots in Finland. The story was already a legend long before the carol was written. Wenceslaus I was duke of Bohemia and lived from around 907 to 935. I don’t know much about his story aside from the story told by the carol. The name Wenceslaus appears to be a Latinized version of the old Czech name “Venceslav” or “Vaclav.” Wenceslaus lived a short life, dying before he was 30 years old. He was murdered by his brother and a group of supporters who wanted his brother to assume power. He was named a Roman Catholic saint after he was martyred. Key to his being named a saint is the story of his braving a harsh winter storm to make a gift to a poor peasant. The event was said to have occurred on the Feast of St. Stephen, which is December 26.
Saint’s feast days are recognized on the date of their death. Wenceslas’ feast day is September 28.
The story was handed down for many generations by oral tradition and the details are a bit unclear. Stephen, reported to be the first Christian saint to be martyred for his faith, has his story reported int he book of Acts. The Bible, however, doesn’t give us the date of his death. I don’t know how the church settled on December 26 as the date to celebrate Stephen, but the traditions of Christmas, rising in the 4th and 5th centuries, were carefully coordinated to have selected stories and readings to educate newly-converted Christians in the stories of the faith. Telling Stephen’s story in conjunction with the birth narrative of Jesus was probably part of a carefully planned set of sessions that were designed to teach both the cost and the joys of discipleship.
The traditions included four weeks of prayer and fasting and preparation with a single feast day. The third Sunday of Advent is Gaudet Sunday, a day of joy and feasting in the midst of the somber season of preparation. Originally Advent was six weeks long and Gaudet Sunday marked the middle of the fast. Many of those traditions have fallen by the wayside.
The tradition of feasting on Christmas, however, has remained. We had an extravagant meal yesterday. A total of seven of us gathered at the home of dear friends. We all brought food, and there was such an abundance that we all were taking food home with us at the end of the meal. It was the first Christmas for our hosts when none of their adult daughters were able to be home for the holiday. It seems to be a bit of a South Dakota tradition to raise our children here and then watch as they go off into the world to pursue their careers and lives in other places. They have three daughters. Two are in Tennessee and one in Minnesota. They will be together on the holiday again soon, but this year was a year for the daughters to be elsewhere.
We did share a delightful phone conversation with their twin daughters during our dinner. A speaker phone gave us all a chance to enjoy their delightful humor and sense their loving presence. They had us all laughing. Like Garrison Keillor, I have told my share of jokes about midwestern Lutherans, and our host family fits the stereotype quite nicely. At least if you hold that kind of stereotype in your mind, a discussion of Pineapple Casserole fits right into your image. Personally, I don’t have an opinion on the dish, except that it doesn’t seem like anything I would cook. Pineapple, butter, flour, and sugar are not ingredients that seem to invite the addition of sharp cheddar cheese, but then, I’m not from Wisconsin. Then there is the topping. Crushed Ritz crackers add a crunch, I’m sure, especially when they are mixed with melted butter and baked as a topping. The result is a sort of cobbler, I guess. I felt no need to get the exact recipe. I don’t plan on making it. But I was amazed that we could be so thoroughly entertained by a pair of twins discussing the relative merits of different versions of the dessert. Indeed it was an appropriate discussion for a feast day.
Today’s celebration won’t involve too much feasting at our house. Health dictates that we be conscious of how many calories we consume and we’ll have more energy for the other tasks of our lives if we eat in a more sensible manner. Unlike folks of earlier centuries who lived in northern climates, we don’t really fear running out of food during the winter. We won’t face famine if we over consume at the solstice. The risk of a Christmas celebration escapes us. We don’t take much of a risk by having a good celebration meal for Christmas.
I do, however, enjoy stretching out the celebration. I have no intention of allowing Christmas to be “over” just yet. The Christmas decorations in the church and in our home will remain in place. At the church, we’ll recognize Epiphany a day early this year, on January 5, because of the convenience of a Sunday celebration. We may take down some of the Christmas decorations that afternoon. But at our home, we’ll keep the tree up and decorations spread out for the full twelve days.
By then, most readers of my journal will be tired of my constant ramblings about Christmas and ready to move on to the season of light.