Christmas In Ritual & Tradition - online book

The Observance Of Christmas In Various Lands And Ages.

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ST. STEPHEN'S DAY
peasant would clean out another's stable, often at some distant from his home, feed, water, and rub down the horses, and then be entertained to breakfast. In olden times after service on St. Stephen's Day there was a race home on horseback, and it was supposed that he who arrived first would be the first to get his harvest in. But the most remarkable custom is the early morning jaunt of the so-called "Stephen's men," companies of peasant youths, who long before daybreak ride in a kind of race from village to village and awaken the inhabitants with a folk-song called Stajfansvisa, expecting to be treated to ale or spirits in return.
The cavalcade is supposed to represent St. Stephen and his followers, yet the saint is not, as might be expected, the first martyr of the New Testament, but a dauntless missionary who, according to old legends, was one of the first preachers of the Gospel in Sweden, and was murdered by the heathen in a dark forest. A special trait, his love ot horses, connects him with the customs just described. He had, the legends tell, five steeds : two red, two white, one dappled ; when one was weary he mounted another, making every week a great round to preach the Word. After his death his body was fastened to the back of an unbroken colt, which halted not till it came near Norrala, his home. There he was buried, and a church built over his grave became a place of pilgrimage to which sick animals, especially horses, were brought for healing.
Mannhardt and Feilberg hold that this Swedish St. Stephen is not a historical personage but a mythical figure, like many other saints, and that his legend, so bound up with horses, was an attempt to account for the folk-customs practised on the day dedi­cated to St. Stephen the first martyr. It is interesting to note that legendary tradition has played about a good deal with the New Testament Stephen ; for instance an old English carol makes him a servant in King Herod's hall at the time of Christ's birth :—
" Stephen out of kitchen came,
With boares head on hand, He saw a star was fair and bright
Over Bethlehem stand."
3:3
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