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ST. STEPHEN'S DAY-December 26th. He was called the protomartyr, or first martyr to the gospel, having been stoned to death by the Jews for accusing them of the murder of Christ, whom he maintained to be the true Messiah.*
Many singular customs and superstitions used to belong to this day, but which for the most part have now become well nigh obsolete. At one time it was usual to gallop horses up and down till they were bathed in sweat, and then bleed them, under the notion of keeping them in health throughout the new year—" as if," says Thomas Naogeorgus," St. Stephen ever took care of horses."† I don't see why he should not; St. Eulogius protected grooms, and it may be doubted whether the animals were not the more worthy of the two to come under saintly patronage.
We have excellent authority for the prevalence of this custom, and not confined to one age or one country; thus old Tusser under the month of December poetizes;
"Yer Christmas be passed let horses be let blood,
And again we find in the disbursements made by the canons of St Mary in Huntingdon :
For lettyng our horses blede in weke.....
£0 Os. 4d."
So too amongst the Danes; for Olaus Wormius, when noting the symbolical painting applied to the different
Hospinian DE FESTIS CHRISTIANORUM, p. 160.
"Mox sequitur Stephani festum quo quisque caballos
In campo exercet cursu saltuque volucri,
Dum fluat e toto fessorum corpore sudor,
Adque fabros ductis mandant pertundere venam.
saints-days, tells us that Stephen was designated by a fleam or lancet" because on that day it is the custom to bleed horses to preserve them from diseases for the whole year.'
IN TUSSER REDIVIVUS the same practice is mentioned in a note, but in a way that tends somewhat to minish the saint's honour by setting aside his patronage and giving another reason for it-" About Christmas is a very proper time to bleed horses in, for then they are commonly at house, then spring comes on, the sun being now coming back from the winter solstice, and there are three or four days of rest; and if it be upon St. Stephen's Day it is not the worse, seeing there are with it three days of rest or at least two."t
Our old gossiping friend, Aubrey, so often quoted in these pages, bears testimony to the same thing" on St. Stephen's Day the farrier came constantly and blooded all our cart-horses." And the fact is yet farther confirmed, if it needes confirmation, by the authority of Joachim Hildebrand, who informs us that according to the popular belief horses bled on this day will not die for the year following. Other instances might be given- "witnesses more than my pack would hold"-but enough has been said to convince all of the potency of this charm, who are at all open to conviction.
Another custom of St. Stephen's Day in the northern
"Stephano protomartyri dicatus (i.e. dies) phlebotomo innuitur, quod equis hoc die venas incidere soleant, ut a morbis totum annum liberi evadant." Olaus Magnus-FASTI DANICI. lib. ii. Cap. ix. p. 110. P. 148.
AUBREY'S REMAINS OF GENTILISME AND JUDAISME, MS. Lansd: Coll-Brit. Mus.-326.
§ "Altera superstitio est quòd in festo S. Stephani equos exerceant, donec toto corpore sudent; postea ad fabros ducant, qui equis venam pertundant, rati tales equos anno proximo mori non posse." JOACHIMI HILDEBRANDI DE DIEBUS FESTIS LIBELLUS. § 8, p. 333.
parts of England was the SwORD DANCE, which was executed by six youths, called sword-dancers; they were dressed in white profusely garnished with ribbands, and were attended by a fiddler, a personated doctor, and a lad in curious attire who generally bore the name of Bessy, in which guise they travelled from village to village performing the dance above mentioned. Indeed it almost seems to have been a rude ballet of action interspersed with singing, for one of the youths plays the part of king; and the Bessy interfering, while they are describing a hexagon with their swords, is killed. These frolicks they continued till New Year's Day, when the festival was wound up by spending their gains upon a grand carouse at the ale-house.*
The goose too again makes its appearance, as a special appendage to this day, but not with the honours that belonged to it at Michaelmas and Martinmas. The bird is baked in a pye, several of which pies are made by the rich, and sent round to their poorer neighbours, one only being retained for themselves, which is carefully kept, untasted, till Candlemas Day,† or the Purification of the Virgin. Nor are those the only indications of St. Stephen's Day being one of much sensual enjoyment. In Ray's proverbs we have an old saw that fully confirms the fact; "Blessed be St. Stephen,
There's no fast upon his even :"
while, probably from being a part of Christmas, it was honoured with its appropriate carols.‡
* See the GENTLEMAN'S MAGAZINE for May, 1811-p. 423-vol. lxxxi.-part I.
Ritson has preserved a carol that puts the simple credulity of the old times in a very admirable light. In plain prose it would run thus. Saint Stephen was a clerk, who served at the dinner table of King Herod, and upon one occasion, while bringing in a boar's head from the kitchen, he on the sudden saw a bright star standing over Bethlehem. Upon this he flung down the boar's head, and told Herod to his
But the feast of Saint Stephen is more generally known amongst us as Boxing-Day, a term which has most probably been derived from the custom of depositing the Christmas gifts in a money-box, from which they could not be extracted but by breaking open the box itself. Of this usage many scattered hints may be found in our old writers. Thus for instance Mason says, "like a swine he never doth good till his death; as an apprentice's box of earth, apt he is to take all, but to restore none till hee be broken."* And again; Humphrey Browne, when speaking of a miser, says "he doth exceed in receiving, but is very deficient in giving; like the Christmas earthen boxes of apprentices, apt to take in money, but hee restores none till hee be broken like a potter's vessel into many shares." And no less to the purpose is what we read in the English Usurer
"Both with the Christmas boxe may well comply; It nothing yields 'till broke; they 'till they die." Lastly, if any more proofs be wanted, we have the fol
face that he would serve him no longer. The king was naturally enough surprised at this sudden outbreak and demanded to know the cause of it, professing his readiness to give him more mete and drynk' if he found any lack of either. To this Stephen responded that there was a youth just born in "Bedlem" who was better than all of them, whereat the king waxed indignant, and observed that it was about as true as that the capon would crow, which was lying on the table ready cooked for eating. No sooner was the word spoken, than the cock crew aloud, "Christus natus est"-Christ is born.—But so far was Herod from being moved by this miracle, as he ought in all reason to have been, that he forthwith ordered Stephen to be led out of the town and stoned to death. And stoned he was accordingly.
MASON'S HANDFUL OF ESSAIES. 12mo. London. 1642. Signat. c. 6. b.-as quoted by Brand; vol. i.—p. 271.
A MAP OF MICROCOSME, OR A MORALL DESCRIPTION OF MAN, NEWLY COMPILED INTO ESSAYS BY H. BROWNE. 12mo. London, Signat. c. 6. b. Quoted by Brand; vol. i.—p. 271.
4to. Lond: 1634,- -as quoted by Brand; vol. i.—p. 271.
lowing in Aubrey, when describing some Roman coin, found buried in a pot in North Wiltshire;—" it resembles in appearance an apprentice's earthen Christmas box.'
The origin of the custom is at first sight far from being so apparent, and it is not impossible that Christmas Boxes and New Year's Gifts may have come to us from two very different sources. The Christmas Box bestowed on labourers, mechanics, &c. may be no more than a substitute for the attendance given by the Romans to their own servants during the Saturnalia, for this festival happened much about the time of Christmas, and the commutation of service into something between a fine and a gift seems to be in the natural course of things. This however, was but one feature of the Saturnalia, and if from this the Christmas-box arose, there can, I think, be little doubt that the New Year's Gifts originated in the custom peculiar to this season among the Romans of sending mutual presents to each other.† The ceremony according to the usual routine in these matters was continued among the Christians but with a changed object, for that, which had been done in honour of the God
* MISCELLANIES ON SEVERAL CURIOUS SUBJECTS.-Natural History of the North Division of the County of North Wiltshire. p. 26, 8vo. London. 1714.
+ The Romans would appear to have been particularly fond of these New Year's Gifts-STRENÆ, as they called them-though it is to be feared they were too often employed for the worst of purposes. Tiberius, a man not likely to take alarm at vice in any shape, yet thought it requisite to forbid the exchange of them, except on the Calends of January (i. e. the 1st of January.)—" Strenarum commercium ne ultra Kalendas Januarias exerceretur." (SUETONII TIBERIUS, cap. 34). The senators presented their New-year's gifts in the Capitol to the emperor, even though he were absent.-"Omnes ordines in lacum Curtii quotannis ex voto pro salute ejus stipem jaciebant; item Kalendis Januariis strenam in Capitolio etiam absenti." (Suetonii Oct. Augustus, cap. 57.) And examples of this kind might be multiplied, but it would be useless when the truth is so obvious.