Most of the people in France have to work during the day of Saint Stephen. The 26th of December is a day off in Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin in Alsace and in the Lorraine département of Moselle.
The life of Saint Stephen
Saint Stephen was the first Christian marthyr. He was tried by the Jews for preaching the things not in line with the Jewish faith. He was stoned to death around 35 A. D. The man who persecuted him fiercely, wanted him dead and even supervised the execution, was no one else than the famous Saul of Taursus, the future Saint Paul. As we know, the commemoration of the death of the saint falls on 26th of December. It has a special meaning. Celebrations of the birth of the Saviour is near to the festival of Saint Stephen because the relatioship between the two persons: Christ and his servant. Initially the festival of Saint-Etienne (Etienne being the secend name of saint Stephen) was celebrated at 3rd of August, the day in which his relics were found. Saint Stephen is most often depicted being surrounded by three stones.
26th of December and cuisine
The day is marked with consumption of traditional dishes. The feasting is done on low key note, though. The people eat what is left from the days proceeding the 26th of December. Usually it is partly eaten turkey and ham served with some quality vines and other alcoholic beverages. Seafood is also very popular and may be served even fresh if the feasters live near the seashore. There is a particular type of bread, which is being eaten particularly on Saint Stephen Day. It is called pains d'habitant (bread of a settler). At Christmas, pain d’habitant used to be made at least 10 loaves at a time, to be reasy for the next day. It was usually baked in the stone ovens. And there is also something special, at least the reminder of it. Leftovers of desserts may be plentiful because of the custom of eating 13 of them during the time of the Christmas dinner. It is customary to spot on tables the so-called Christmas Logs, bûches de Noël, and another cremes, cakes and musses.
Saint Stephen Day and horse bleeding
There are very strange and even nauseating customs, connected with the say of Saint Stephen. One of them is maiming the horse. The people believed, that by making cuts on the body of horse, they make them immune to diseases. Firstly the horse was rided upon fastly, and then his body was cut a little bit. There is a poem about the custom, from the book about running the household by Thomas Tusser ("Five hundred points of Good Husbandrie"):
Ere Christmas be passed let horse be let blood, for many a purpose it doth them much good. The day of St. Stephen old fathers did use: if that do mislike thee some other day choose.
The verses come from XVI century. The reader may wonder, what is the connection between the bleeding of horses and Saint Stephan. The saint used to have a horse of his own and was reported saying that the animal was once miraculously cured by Jesus.
Hunt of a wren: ritual of killing a bird
There is another strange and cruel custom, connected with the festival of Saint Stephen on the 26th of December. It is called hunt of a wren. Little boys used to go out and chase the wren until it was catched by them or it died out of fear or exhaustion. Then he boys would catch the bird, tie it to a stick as a trophy and carry with themselves, showing it off and even going door-to-door and asking for treats. Nowadays the cruelties connected with the customs are not only subdued, but almost entirely gone, because the wren, which is being tied atop of the stick, is not real. This strange custom is quite widespread. It is popular in the southern parts of France, Ireland and Isle of Man. James George Frazer describes a ren-hunting ritual in Carcassonne in his famous book on etnology entitled "The Golden Bough." The wren was not only hunted down and tied to the pole, but also buried in the cemetery. The burial was accompanied with a mock ceremony. An example of the speech, noted down by the researcher in the 20. of XX century: "Shee er yn dreean, shee er yn cheer, shee er y cheeyl, as shee er mkind of eehene" ('Peace on the Wren, peace on the country, peace on the church, and peace on myself'). This particular ritual happened on the Isle of Man.
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