Stained glass at the Bourges Cathedral in France depicts Lucianus ﬁnding the tomb of St. Stephen.
By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo
The Christmas season in Catholic Italy focuses on the meaning of the season with not only Christmas but nine other holidays in a reverent and joyful time. This differs from here in the United State even as Christmas draws crowds of the faithful to services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It seems more of the focus is on parties and shopping sprees as advertisers entice us, even before Thanksgiving, to get started with our purchases to make sure we get the best deals. While gift giving in Italy is part of the holiday, it is not as important as celebrating the birth of Christ and spending time with family and friends.
Dec. 25 is the most solemn and joyous of days as Italian Catholics celebrate the birth of Christ. The following day, Dec. 26 is also a much-loved and celebrated holiday with La Festa di Santo Stefano. In the United States, the day after Christmas has become a day to return gifts or to continue shopping for great buys. However, in Italy it is a public holiday to honor Christianity’s first saint Santo Stefano. As the first acknowledged saint, celebrating him takes place on the day immediately following the birth of Jesus. He is the patron saint of stonecutters, bricklayers, deacons, and those who suffer from headaches and migraines.
The festival of Santo Stefano became a national holiday in 1947 with the intent to extend holiday celebrations and to add solemnity to the celebration of the birth of Christ. Only one other holiday in Italy enjoys the same status and that is Easter, with the celebration of Pasquetta (Little Easter) the following day.
Santo Stefano is considered the first deacon of Jerusalem. The Acts of the Apostles tells how, after the death of Christ, the 12 apostles were completely devoted to preaching the word of God and for this reason could not dedicate their time to serving the people. In order to help the population, they chose seven of their disciples to dedicate themselves to the day-to-day needs of the population. The first among the seven chosen disciples was Santo Stefano. He was a pious and well-loved man among the Christians but particularly feared by the Hebrews. In their eyes, he was guilty of the conversion to Christianity of many of the Jewish population who had survived the diaspora.
Around 34 A.D. some of the Hebrews accused Stefano of blasphemy and brought him before the Sinedrio of Jerusalem (The Sanhedrin or Supreme Council of the Jews) for judgment on his actions. During the hearing, Stefano proclaimed himself a son of God who sat at the side of his father. This further inflamed the people who had brought him to trial and those present dragged him from the judicial hall and stoned him to death. It is believed by some scholars that this transpired after Pontius Pilate was removed from power in a period when governance of Jerusalem was assumed by the Sinedrio. The date of his martyrdom is approximate based on when Pontius Pilate ruled. The theory is that if Pontius Pilate had still been Governor, he would have crucified Stefano as he did with Jesus. The stoning, however, was typical of the Hebrew manner of execution at the time.
Centuries after his death, sometime around 415 A.D., the scholar Gamaliele, a well-respected elder of the Sanhedrin, appeared in a dream to a priest by the name of Luciano di Kefar-Gamba. Church tradition suggests that Gamaliele became a Christian and was baptized along with Nicodemus by Peter and John. Some Christian scholars believed he continued in his role in the Sanhedrin to secretly assist fellow Christians. Santo Stefano and the disciple Nicodemus also appeared in the dream. The elder revealed that he and Stefano and Nicodemus were suffering greatly because they had been buried without honor. He indicated the location of their graves to the priest so their relics could be found.
Excavations began after approval of the bishop of the city and the remains of the saints and Nicodemus were located exactly where Gamaliele had described. Their relics were then dispersed throughout the Christian kingdom. A considerable number of miracles attributed to Santo Stefano made him one of the most loved martyrs in Christianity.
On Dec. 26, 1394, the Knights of St. John ordered the relics of St. Stephen removed from the repository in the Castle of Monopoli for protection from a Saracen attack and transferred for safekeeping to the town of Putignano in the region of Bari.
Celebrations vary from town to town, some with processions and others with people visiting local hospitals to donate. Another popular tradition is to pay a visit to living nativity scenes like the one in the Abruzzese mountain town of Fara San Martino. Here the locals gather in the main piazza for a re-enactment of the nativity. In Veneto, in the province of Padua, hundreds of participants re-enact a story from the Bible. In Vaccheria, a small town near Caserta, a living nativity scene is set up around the streets in honor of the 18th-century Neapolitan presepe vivente (crèche). In Sicily, a presepe vivente in Ispica Ragusa attracts thousands of visitors.
Italian families spend the day together on Santo Stefano with family and friends just as they do on Christmas day. The activities and traditions are comparable to the day before with traditional foods and Christmas sweets as well as the popular game of Tombola. In Italy, a tombola is a traditional board game, first played in the city of Naples in the 18th century like the game of bingo. Weather permitting, many Italians chose to visit and enjoy the attractions of nearby cities or to explore and relax in the beauty of the great outdoors.