Although the feast of the Holy Family is always a beautiful celebration, this year it pre-empted the feast of St. Stephen on December 26, and I had to include a private and personal commemoration. I have a love for St. Stephen and always enjoy celebrating his feast, particularly singing quite a few verses of “Good King Wenceslaus”, since that king memorably set out to do his acts of charity “on the feast of Stephen“.
When I was a kid, I really enjoyed playing and singing my way through whichever book of Christmas carols surfaced from the storage section of the piano bench. (My parents, who had saved and struggled to buy a piano, surely had ambitions to hear me play Bach, not the Gilbert and Sullivan I preferred, but at Christmas time they were willing to listen to carols.) Anyway, I loved singing about Wenceslaus (what a great name!) struggling through that snow “deep and crisp and even”; I had no notion of what the ‘feast of Stephen” referred to, but that didn’t faze me a bit as I warbled on about the king and his page, heading out in the bright moonlight “though the frost was cru-el”.
Many years later, studying the Acts of the Apostles, I discovered the real St. Stephen, one of the first deacons appointed by the apostles, and I thrilled to his defense before the Sanhedrin. The guy must have been really charismatic! (See chapters 6 and 7 of the Acts of the Apostles for Stephen’s story.) And when I read of his martyrdom, and realized that as the first Christian martyr his feast is December 26, suddenly the penny dropped and the carol made sense–he is the one referred to by my beloved carol. Ever since then, I enjoy the singing even more and the tale becomes more complete. “In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted; / Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed./ Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, / You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”