Horse Customs of St. Stephen’s Day

By Clement A. Miles

The following is a section from Clement A. Miles’ 1913 book ”Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan”. The original hyperlinked footnotes have been left in (marked { } ). These will show you the original footnotes at Project Gutenberg. Amos Staff has modernized some spelling, made small adjustments to sentences, added some illustrations, and added notes of our own (marked [ ]).

The most striking thing about St. Stephen’s Day [1] is its connection with horses. St. Stephen is their patron [2]; in England in former times they were bled on his festival [*]in the belief that it would benefit them,{2} and the custom is still continued in some parts of Austria.{3} In Tyrol it is the custom not only to bleed horses on St. Stephen’s Day, but also to give them consecrated salt and bread or oats and barley.{4} [3]

In some of the Carinthian valleys where horse-breeding is specially carried on, the young men ride into the village on their unsaddled steeds, and a race is run four or five times round the church, while the priest blesses the animals, sprinkling them with holy water and exorcizing them.{5}

Similar customs are or were found in various parts of Germany. In Munich, formerly, during the services on St. Stephen’s Day more than two hundred men on horseback used to ride three times round the interior of a church. The horses were decorated with many-coloured ribbons, and the practice was not abolished till 1876.{6} At Backnang in Swabia, horses were ridden out as fast as possible to protect them from the influence of witches, and in the Hohenlohe region men-servants were permitted by their masters to ride in companies to neighbouring places, where much drinking went on.{7} In Holstein the lads on Stephen’s Eve used to visit their neighbours in a company, groom the horses, and ride about in the farmyards, making a great noise until the people woke up and treated them to beer and spirits.{8} At the village of Wallsbüll near Flensburg the peasant youths in the early morning held a race, and the winner was called Steffen and entertained at the inn. At Viöl near Bredstadt the child who got up last on December 26 received the name of Steffen and had to ride to a neighbour’s house on a hay-fork. In other German districts, the festival was called “the great horse-day,” consecrated food was given to the animals, they were driven round and round the fields until they sweated violently, and at last were ridden to the blacksmith’s and bled, to keep them healthy through the year. The blood was preserved as a remedy for various illnesses.{9}

It is, however, in Sweden that the “horsy” aspect of the festival is most obvious.{10} Formerly there was a custom, at one o’clock on St. Stephen’s morning, for horses to be ridden to water that flowed northward; they would then drink “the cream of the water” and flourish during the year. There was a violent race to the water, and the servant who got there first was rewarded by a drink of something stronger. Again, early that morning one peasant would clean out another’s stable, often at some distance from his home, feed, water, and rub down the horses, and then be entertained to breakfast. In olden times after service on St. Stephen’s Day, there was a race home on horseback, and it was supposed that he who arrived first would be the first to get his harvest in. But the most remarkable custom is the early morning jaunt of the so-called “Stephen’s men,” companies of peasant youths, who long before daybreak ride in a kind of race from village to village and awaken the inhabitants with a folk-song called Staffansvisa, expecting to be treated to ale or spirits in return.

The cavalcade is supposed to represent St. Stephen and his followers, yet the saint is not, to the Swedes, as might be expected, the first martyr of the New Testament, but a dauntless missionary who, according to old legends, was one of the first preachers of the Gospel in Sweden, and was murdered by the heathen in a dark forest. [4] A special trait, his love of horses, connects him with the customs just described. He had, the legends tell, five steeds: two red, two white, one dappled; when one was weary he mounted another, making every week a great round to preach the Word. After his death his body was fastened to the back of an unbroken colt, which halted not till it came near Norrala, his home. There he was buried, and a church built over his grave became a place of pilgrimage to which sick animals, especially horses, were brought for healing.

Mannhardt and Feilberg hold that this Swedish St. Stephen is not a historical personage but a mythical figure, like many other saints, and that his legend, so bound up with horses, was an attempt to account for the folk-customs practised on the day dedicated to St. Stephen the first martyr. It is interesting to note that legendary tradition has played about a good deal with the New Testament Stephen; for instance an old English carol makes him a servant in King Herod’s hall at the time of Christ’s birth:—“Stephen out of kitchen came, With boarës head on hand, He saw a star was fair and bright Over Bethlehem stand.” [5]

Thereupon he forsook King Herod for the Child Jesus, and was stoned to death.{11}

To return, however, to the horse customs of the day after Christmas, it is pretty plain that they are of non-Christian origin. Mannhardt has suggested that the race which is their most prominent feature once formed the prelude to a ceremony of lustration [6] of houses and fields with a sacred tree. Somewhat similar “ridings” are found in various parts of Europe in spring, and are connected with a procession that appears to be an ecclesiastical adaptation of a pre-Christian lustration-rite.{12} The great name of Mannhardt lends weight to this theory, but it seems a somewhat roundabout way of accounting for the facts. Perhaps an explanation of the “horsiness” of the day might be sought in some pre-Christian sacrifice of steeds.

We note that St. Stephen’s Day is often the date for the “hunting of the wren” in the British Isles; it was also in England generally devoted to hunting and shooting, it being held that the game laws were not in force on that day.{13} This may be only an instance of Christmas licence, but it is just possible that there is here a survival of some tradition of sacrificial slaughter.

Notes:

[1] St. Stephen’s Day is generally marked 26 December (Boxing Day) in Western Christianity and on the 27th of December in Eastern Christianity. (Just for fun, this day, according to his namesake Christmas carol, is the day King Wenceslas looked out on snow that was “deep, and crisp, and even.”)

[2] Also the patron of headaches, stone masons, brick layers, casket makers, and the Acoma Indian Pueblo.

[*] 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.

From Thomas Tusser, Five hundred points of Good Husbandrie

[3] “In Tyrolese churches early in the morning of St. Stephen’s Day there takes place a consecration of water and of salt brought by the people. The water is used by the peasants to sprinkle food, barns, and fields in order to avert the influence of witches and evil spirits, and bread soaked in it is given to the cattle when they are driven out to pasture on Whit Monday. The salt, too, is given to the beasts, and the peasants themselves partake of it before any important journey like a pilgrimage. Moreover when a storm is threatening some is thrown into the fire as a protection against hail.”

[4] According to Omer Englebert’s Lives of the Saints, this later St. Stephen was martyred at Norrala, Sweden, in about 1072 CE. The proto-martyr or first martyr, St. Stephen, was stoned to death in Jerusalem in about 36 CE. St. Stephen, in the medieval period, at least in Sweden, became conflated with a second, later missionary who may or may not have been martyred. The horse, however, associated with the (later?) St. Stephen has since become part of the earlier martyr, St. Stephen.

[5] From a St Stephen’s Day carol dating to the time of Henry VI. See: ”A Bundle of Christmas Carols” from New Catholic World, Vol. 2.

[6] Lustration: the process of making something clear or pure. From the Latin Lustratio. The term has recently been used to refer to the purging of government officials in eastern European countries, particularly those previously part of or associated with the former Soviet Union.

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