The Feast of Stephen

December 26 is the feast day of the first martyr of the Christian church, St Stephen. What little we know about him can be found in the Book of Acts where we learn that he had been chosen one of the seven deacons in Jerusalem and that his defence of Christianity resulted in his being stoned to death for blasphemy. Legend, however, has surrounded the protomartyr with a host of stories which link him to Herod’s household at the time of the birth of Jesus, to horses and to the stoning of the tiny wren.

Ever since the tenth century Stephen’s Day has been associated with horses, probably because the season was a time of horse sacrifice in pagan northern Europe and a time of rest from agricultural work for both man and beast. In England it is a time to bleed horses to ensure their health for the coming year. Across Europe December 26 is a time for horses to be fed extra food, raced, decorated, blessed by the priest or ridden in ceremonies honouring their species. This is particulalry true in Sweden where “Staffan Riders” would race from village to village and sing songs in honour of the saint. Some have tried (not very successfully) to explain the connection between horses and St Stephen’s Day by claiming it has stemmed from confusion between the martyr in the Book of Acts and a later saint, Stephen of Corvey, martyred c. 1075, whose feast day June 2. This Stephen was a lover of horses and was said to ride five of them in turn. When he was murdered his unbroken colt took him home to Norrtalje which became a shrine for horse-healing.

The water and salt blessed by the priest on St Stephen’s Day would be set aside and used as medicine for horses should they fall ill during the rest of the year or to sprinkle liberally about the barn and yard to bring prosperity. The salt could also be thrown in the fire to avert danger from thunder-storms. In some places the blood drawn from horses on this day was thought to have healing powers. In Poland, the blessing of food for horses led to other peculiar rituals on St Stephen’s Day. In what has been interpreted either as a remnant of pagan fertility rites or a re-enactment of the stoning of Stephen, people would throw the consecrated oats at each other and their animals. Moreover, it was customary on December 26 for boys and girls to throw walnuts at one another.

St Stephen’s Day is also marked in Ireland and other parts of Britain by hunting a bird considered protected every other the day of the year, the wren, and parading about with its body. Wren Boys used to carry a dead wren on a branch from house to house, and sing an appropriate song which solicited money:

Other customs associated with St Stephens’s Day include holming. In Wales holming or holly-beating was the practice for young men to beat each other (or female servants) with holly branches on December 26. In Britain generally December 26 is a day for sporting events and hunting and the day observed as Boxing Day.

 

Herod the Great

Herod (73-04 B.C.) was  king of Judaea at the time of the birth of Christ and rebuilder of the Temple in Jerusalem. His murderousness was legendary: he killed many of his children and wives — the Romans joked that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than a family member.  The Massacre of the Innocents which the Bible ascribes to him is very much in keeping with what we know of personality. He is the subject of a number of Christmas carols and ballads, such as the Coventry Carol, The Carnel and the Crane, and St. Stephen and Herod, and appears in seasonal drama as a raging tyrant. In Christmas art, he was portrayed as a rather big, old man, crowned and sitting on a throne.  He is always bearded with long dark hair and wearing royal garments.

The twelfth-century abbey of Fleury in France staged a dramatic presentation that has come to be known as The Play of Herod. It describes the Nativity with its attendant angels, midwives and shepherds, the encounter between King Herod and the Magi and the Massacre of the Innocents which the king orders. Of the surviving medieval plays with these themes the Fleury Herod is considered to be the most artistically satisfying.

As the American election nears

A general Dissolution of Principles & Manners will more surely overthrow the Liberties of America than the whole Force of the Common Enemy. While the People are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their Virtue they will be ready to surrender their Liberties to the first external or internal Invader. How necessary then is it for those who are determin’d to transmit the Blessings of Liberty as a fair Inheritance to Posterity, to associate on publick Principles in Support of publick Virtue.

— Samuel Adams

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Tolstoy!

thekindlycurmudgeon

Smoking hot off the digital Theodosian presses comes “The Kindly Curmudgeon: All Kinds of Writings from an Ink-Stained Life”, a collection of Gerry Bowler’s Shortest and Greatest Hits. Grab your copy at https://www.amazon.ca/Kindly-Curmudgeon-Kinds-Writings-Ink-Stained-ebook/dp/B01KIC81DW/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1475294046&sr=8-2&keywords=the+kindle+curmudgeon

 

The Theodosian Press: What Is It?

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The Theodosian Press is an e-publishing venture that will bring to the reading public new works of history, theology, and literature, as well as reintroducing forgotten classics. We aim to combine scholarly integrity with popular readability and to make our imprint synonymous with entertaining and educational digital books.

The press is named after two emperors of Late Antiquity: Theodosius I defeated the Arian heresy, ended the bloodthirsty gladiatorial games, and rescued enslaved children; Theodosius II invented the university and built the mighty land walls that protected Constantinople for a thousand years.