Today is the feast of St Stephen, first Christian martyr. Stephen, was, according to the Acts of the Apostles, a deacon in the early church at Jerusalem who aroused the enmity of members of various synagogues by his teachings. Accused of blasphemy, at his trial he made a long speech fiercely denouncing the Jewish authorities who were sitting in judgment on him and was stoned to death. His martyrdom was witnessed by Saul of Tarsus (later renamed Paul), a Pharisee who would later convert to Christianity and become an apostle.The only primary source for information about Stephen is the Biblical book Acts of the Apostles. Stephen was one of the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews selected for a fairer distribution of welfare to the Greek speaking widows in Acts 6:
1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” 5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
Thus was inaugurated the office of deacon, which remains to this day in many Christian denominations a position of service to the community, especially to the poor and needy. Besides his official duties, however, Stephen also preached to the people and raised the ire of some:
8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)–Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, 10 but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. 11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.” 12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin.
Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin is reported in Acts 7; the longest speech recorded in the Greek Bible. It’s fiery stuff not calculated to win any friends on the Sanhedrin. For example,
51 “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him– 53 you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.”
The consequences for Stephen were dire:
54 When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
Stephen’s name is derived from the Greek, Stephanos, meaning “crown.” Traditionally, Stephen is invested with a crown of martyrdom; he is often depicted in art with three stones and the martyr’s palm. In Eastern Christian iconography, he is shown as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing a deacon’s vestments, and often holding a miniature church building or a censer.
St Stephen’s day is a widespread holiday in Europe associated with a host of customs. In Ireland, the day is one of nine official public holidays. In Irish, it is called Lá Fhéile Stiofán or Lá an Dreoilín, meaning the Day of the Wren or Wren’s Day. This name alludes to several legends, including those found in Ireland, linking episodes in the life of Jesus to the wren. Boys and young men dress up in old clothes or disguises and travel from door to door begging for money “for the wren.” At one time they carried a wren on a pole which they had killed that morning, but nowadays they carry a fake wren. Each group had a song they sang as they walked the streets. This one was popularized by the group Steeleye Span:
The custom is not very common these days, although it is being revived in some communities. I had the good fortune to see the traditional wren boys in Letterkenny, Co, Donegal in 1971 late at night as they paraded through the town with lighted fire brands. Fun, but just a tad scary too. Fifty or so young farm boys who have been drinking all day, disguised and carrying live fire – hmmmm. The people in the town were absolutely jubilant as they passed through.
In the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, the day following Christmas is a holiday known as Boxing Day, so called because of the custom in the 19th century of service people going to their employers to receive Christmas “boxes,” that is, bonuses for good service. Household servants had to work on Christmas Day but had Boxing Day off. There are numerous customs associated with the day, too numerous to mention. My favorite is the tradition of linked sword dancing which is very common in the NE of England. Here is a sample from Grenoside in Yorkshire:
Boxing Day is typically a day for using up leftovers from Christmas dinner in creative ways. St Stephen’s Day pie is a great recipe for this. It’s a variant of the classic shepherd’s pie or cottage pie; ground meat and veggies in gravy topped with mashed potato and then baked. This recipe should also teach you that you can make a pie out of just about anything topped with potatoes. I like to make a mix of fish and shellfish in a white sauce. The world is your oyster.
St Stephen’s Day Pie
2 lbs cold turkey meat
1 lb cold ham or bacon
4 ozs butter plus extra for the topping
1 ½ cups chopped onions
1 clove garlic, minced
2 ½ cups poultry stock
1 ¼ cups turkey gravy
8 ozs small button mushrooms
4 tsps chopped parsley
4 tsps chopped chives
2 tsps marjoram, sage, or thyme
salt and freshly ground black pepper
? cup heavy cream
2 pounds mashed potato
Cut the turkey and ham/bacon into 1″ pieces. Melt the butter in a heavy skillet or saucepan, add the chopped onions, cover and sauté for about 10 minutes until they are soft, but not browned.
Wash and slice the mushrooms.
When the onions are soft, stir in the garlic and remove to a plate. Increase the heat and cook the sliced mushrooms. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and add to the onion and garlic.
Toss the cold turkey and ham /bacon in the hot pan, using a little extra butter if necessary. Add the mushrooms and onions. De-glaze the pan with the turkey stock. Add the cream and chopped herbs and bring to a boil. Add the gravy, meat, mushrooms and onions and simmer for 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
Pour the filling into a deep pie dish and top with potatoes. Dot the top with butter to ensure browning. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the potato is golden and the pie is bubbling.