First Day of Christmas: St. Stephen

Now that we are super-saturated with Christmas carols, I’d like to point out that today has its own song, ostensibly about a virtuous tenth-century Duke of Bohemia, who, traipsing through the snow, followed in the footsteps of Christ and, through the courtesy of his evil brother, shared the crown of martyrdom with today’s Proto-Martyr. You’re familiar with the song, I’m sure.

I learned something this morning.  I had always thought the “First Day of Christmas” was Christmas Day, with the Twelfth Day being the Epiphany, January 6. When I counted it up, however, 1/6 turned out to be the 13th day. To find out what’s happening here, I turned of course to Google, (aka Goliath) and discovered this: since in many ancient traditions, the day begins at sunset (rather than sunrise or midnight), it’s logical to see the first full day after Christmas as the First Day.  (I guess that makes the 25th the “Zeroth Day of Christmas! Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was originally intended to be “fun” play to be performed on the Epiphany, the last night of the Christmas season, although it’s actual first performance didn’t take place until Candlemas Day, February 2, 1602.)

For me, the Twelve Days of Christmas is a good excuse forgetting my Christmas cards out late.

I’m sure the “First Day” gift wasn’t intended to be merely decorative. Is anybody celebrating today with roast partridge and a pear salad? The partridge is in the same family as the smaller quail and the larger pheasant. I’ve never eaten partridge, have you?  When I was studying in Rome in the mid 1970s, quail (quaglie) was a very popular secondo piatto. The tiny size of the bird made for a high ratio of both crisp skin (delicious) and tiny bones from which extracting the meat was arduous.  I recall it tasted like chicken, but a lot more work.

I may have had pheasant when I was very young. There’s a darling (some people say) photo of me on a family trip to South Dakota with a shotgun and a dead pheasant. I don’t think I pulled trigger, probably not yet possessing the discretion even to have “aided and abetted.” In fact, I have no memory of the event.  I think a (now long deceased) uncle of mine, an avid hunter, was the culprit, and then planted the evidence in my innocent hands. I suspect you can guess the menu for the next day’s dinner.

I have always seen today’s feast as a sobering reminder of the real implications of the Incarnation that we celebrate on Christmas. As I noted in my homily yesterday, “Jesus our Savior did come for to die.” Pope Francis invites us to pray to St. Stephen for the gift of “coherence” of our Christian faith and the way we live our lives. In today’s Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours, St. Fulgentius of Ruspe focuses on love as the only weapon of the true soldier. “And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier. Love was Stephen’s weapon  by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name.” Find out more about St. Stephen the First Martyr whom we so fittingly celebrate today.

Oh, and Happy Boxing Day, too.

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Author: tomwelbers

I have been a Catholic priest for nearly fifty years, most of that time serving in parish and college campus ministry. I also have professional degrees in theology and liturgy, as well as institutional management, and continue avidly to explore pastoral theology, Scripture, liturgy, ecumenical and interfaith relations, and spiritual direction. I have a passion for sharing insight into our Christian heritage through teaching, writing, and leading pilgrimages, especially to Early Christian World sites in Turkey. Now actively retired from parish ministry, I live at Nazareth House in Los Angeles.

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