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Essay

It’s My Feast Day. Send Presents, Please!

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If I were a boy or a young man today, I would likely go by “Stephen”–like, Colbert, Curry, Hawking, and King.

But growing up as I did, in the days of polyester and The Brady Bunch, I am “Steve.” It once felt so much zippier.

The days after Christmas have these largely unfamiliar holidays—Boxing Day, Kwanzaa, and the Feast of Stephen. Maybe others can explain Kwanzaa and Boxing Day. I’ll try the Feast of Stephen—not because I am especially knowledgeable, but because I want to become more so.

The only reason we have even heard of the Feast of Stephen is the song—not exactly a Christmas carol—Good King Wenceslas. I don’t believe I’ve ever sung it in church. I doubt it was even in the hymnal. Maybe at a carol sing? In a school choir? Or maybe I learned it listening to Christmas albums and shopping mall loudspeakers.

It is an odd song. Poets, musicians, and historians pretty much unanimously disapprove. The lyrics are by John Mason Neale, a 19th century, high-church Anglican whose best work was bringing ancient Greek and Latin texts to the English-speaking church. Of the Father’s Love Begotten. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. All Glory, Laud, and Honor. And more.

Good King Wenceslas wasn’t Neale’s best effort.

Wenceslas (a Latinized version of Vaclav) was a tenth century Bohemian Duke—who only became a “king” posthumously—known as a just ruler and especially as a champion of the poor. If you trudge through the entire song, you will find that deciphering its storyline is not simple. Basically, Wenceslas and his page go out to bring food to a peasant on a snowy December 26. The page falters, but with Wenceslas’s encouragement they persevere.

For me, it all comes down to the final verse. The disheartened page is able to make his way by stepping into Wenceslas’s footprints in the snow, still radiating the heat left behind by his master. What an image for discipleship.

What a miracle–something I’ve never heard attributed to other holy people! I’m trying to think of other saintly uses for oozing great heat through the feet. What does it tell me about the state of my soul that my feet are almost always cold? I’m left with a post-modern smirk on my face, and just a smidge of pious awe.

Then comes the line for which we have plodded through five verses—Therefore, Christian folk be sure, wealth or rank possessing, ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

But enough about Vaclav and Neale. What about Stephen and his day, today?

Despite our shared name, I’ve never felt an especially close bond with the Deacon from Acts, the first martyr of the church. As a child, I liked finding my name in the Bible. But it does make me wonder about the way I was taught to read the Bible that I was never encouraged to find inspiration in Stephen or identify with him in some way. Is my Protestantism showing? Was martyrdom too heavy a burden to lay on children for a role model? I will sound very Protestant and say that at least “my saint” has biblical reference and isn’t a hazy fourth century eccentric who was purportedly involved with some grotesque phenomenon.

It has become common for us Protestants to confess that we probably overreacted on the whole saint thing—throwing the baby out with bathwater. While I agree in theory, it is pretty obvious that I haven’t exactly taken up the torch with alacrity.

Looking back, for example, St. Patrick’s and St. Valentine’s Day were simply days for construction-paper rituals in elementary school. I don’t think it ever dawned on me that cities like San Francisco or St. Augustine were named for people. Their names were as meaningless as Duluth or Tampa. (Although I do now envy those whose addresses include Sacramento or Corpus Christi!) Recently it has become fashionable for those of us of Dutch extraction to rehabilitate St. Nicholas. And I’m always pleased to point out that the Belgic Confession refers to the four gospels as St. Matthew, St. Mark. St. Luke, and St. John—not because I often refer to them that way, but more to dull anti-Catholicism.

Why December 26 for St. Stephen? I don’t know. I do recall when the weather forecast on the French TV news included not only the predicted highs and lows for the day, but also whose saint day it was. According to my wife’s grandmothers, when they were children, early last century, celebrating your saint day was a bigger deal than your birthday. If so, Stephen on December 26 might have been disadvantageous, like those with December birthdays who complain that their celebrations are always outshone by Christmas. Most all of this is quickly disappearing from France today, as there are now an abundance of Tiffanys and Tariqs.

And what does one do on St. Stephens Day? Send me felicitations and gift cards? Should I host a party? Covering yourself in straw to resemble a wren and then visiting your neighbors is one tradition. Blessing horses or driving late sleepers from their bed with holly branches are other possibilities. Don’t ask. The tradition that seems most likely to catch on is “stoning”—after Stephen’s mode of execution—a drinking game of some sort.

I wish I had more excitement for all of this. I don’t think my misgivings are especially faith-based. It is more a matter of unfamiliarity, an inability to absorb it in a way that brings much meaning or joy. I find it entertaining and interesting, almost inspiring. Sometimes though, if I breathe deeply, I think I may catch a little whiff of something holy.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

4 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    My dear Saint, I enjoyed this lots. I have some personal questions for you know. Not for here. I can boast, however, that I get to be numbered among the prophets and apostles.

  • Nice, Steve (or Stephen 😊)

  • James Schaap says:

    After yesterday’s merriment, I’ll pass on another holiday. But thanks for the offer! 🙂

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    The Orthodox Calendar makes tomorrow, the 27th, St. Stephen’s Day, and I wonder about that, since it leaves Boxing Day unobstructed and leaves the two unconfused. It seems to me that Wenceslaus and his page are actually celebrating Boxing Day in Neale’s hymn, but making a rhyme with “boxing” might well have killed him. Anyway, enjoy your feast day!

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