Happy St. Stephen's Day!

Merry Christmas, and Happy St. Stephen's Day!

Christmas is not a single day, but a 12-day feast that runs from December 25 to January 5, culminating with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. There are several feastdays during this joyous season of Christmastide. Today, December 26, is one of them: the feastday of St. Stephen. 

The story of Stephen is found in Acts 6-7. He was the first deacon, one of seven leaders chosen to care for the poor in the early Jerusalem church. He was also the first Christian martyr. It’s customary on this day to serve others, especially those who may be overlooked or neglected, just as St. Stephen did. Mark this day by giving to the needy, volunteering with your church or local charity, and showing hospitality to neighbors.

Stephen and the Dispute before Sanhedrin (Angelico, circa 1447, Vanderbilt Div. Lib.)

Prayer for the day

We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. (Book of Common  Prayer)

Scripture readings (lectionary)

Psalm 31:1-5

Jeremiah 26:1-9,12-15

Matthew 23:34-39

Acts 6:8—7:2, 7:51-60

Musical selection

The best known carol that mentions St. Stephen's Day is "Good King Wenceslas," which begins: "Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen." The last lines are:

Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing

These words recall Christ's teaching that "as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me" (Matt. 25:40). They are words that Stephen himself lived. One of my favorite renditions of this song is by the Irish Rovers:

Other resources

  • "St. Stephen" (from Catholic Encyclopedia), including this line: "Little did all the people present, casting stones upon him, realize that the blood they shed was the first seed of a harvest that was to cover the world." 

The Great "O Antiphons" of Advent

Among the richest treasures of Advent are the Great "O Antiphons." The Antiphons are a series of seven ancient verses that use prophecy and biblical imagery to express the ever-present longing for Christ. They're beautiful, theologically deep poetry, and they serve as the “heralds of Christmas," reminding us that the fast of Advent is almost over and the feast of Christmas is almost here.

A different Antiphon is sung or chanted on each of the seven nights leading up to Christmas, beginning today, December 17.

The Great O Antiphons

December 17

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
Reaching from one end to the other mightily,
And sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

December 18

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
Who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
And gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

December 19

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
Before you kings will shut their mouths,
To you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

December 20

O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel;
You open and no one can shut;
You shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
hose who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

December 21

O Morning Star,
Splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness
And the shadow of death.

December 22

O King of the nations, and their desire,
The cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
Which you fashioned from clay.

December 23

O Emmanuel, our King and our lawgiver,
The hope of the nations and their Savior:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

The Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Anglican men's religious order, has a series of short videos on the Antiphons, all available at our YouTube page. Each video features one of the Antiphons sung in English plainchant, followed by brief commentary.


EXPLORING The ANTIPHONS' theological riches 

The Antiphons may be ancient, but they speak across the ages. Preceded by the poetic “O” to express yearning and wonder, each prays for Christ to come and adds a different dimension to that prayer: teach, redeem, deliver, lead, enlighten, and save. (The prayer “Come and save” appears twice, surely because it is the deepest cry of our hearts.)

Consider incorporating the Antiphons into your Advent practices, for example by reciting them as nightly prayers over the next week. To enrich your experience of the Antiphons, here are a other few things worth noting.

Origin: The Antiphons are old. They date at least to the 8th century, and probably earlier. If you think they sound familiar, you’re right -- the Advent hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is actually a synthesis of the Antiphons.

The Gospel story: The story of the Gospel unfolds progressively in the Antiphons. December 17 tells of creation. December 18 recounts God’s giving of the Law to Israel. On December 19, we remember that out of Israel, from the line of Jesse, came Jesus, the promised Messiah. December 20 and 21 are allusions to Christ’s death and resurrection. December 22 and 23 foreshadow the Last Days when Christ, the hope of nations, will come again to save.

“Tomorrow I will be there”: Each Antiphon addresses Christ by a different title, a name or attribute by which He is known in Scripture. In the original Latin, the first letters of these titles form an acrostic that, spelled backwards, reads “Ero cras,” which means “Tomorrow I will be there.” 

More Resources

Happy St. Lucy's Day!

Every year on December 13, we remember St. Lucy, a young Christian woman who lived in Sicily during the 4th century. In a time when many Christians were persecuted for their faith, Lucy (“light”) brought food to poor Christians hiding in the catacombs. To light her way while keeping her hands free to carry food, she fashioned a candle-lit wreath for her head. She was later martyred for her faith.

St. Lucy's legend lives on today in Scandinavian countries, where winters can be long and dark. Our friend Line Nichols is from Norway, and she graciously agreed to talk with us about her memories of St. Lucy's Day.

To start off, tell us what St. Lucy's Day is all about.

St. Lucy, or Lucia as I grew up calling her, is one of the earliest Christian saints to gain popularity, having a widespread following before the 5th century. While very little is known about her life, according to legend, she devoted her life to Christ at an early age, and brought food to and aid to persecuted Christians hiding in caves, using a candle-lit wreath to light her way and leave her hands free to carry as much food as possible. Living in a time of severe persecution, she was also one of the early Christian martyrs, killed by the Romans in 304 AD. In Scandinavia, the Norse celebration of the winter solstice, with bonfires meant to scare off evil spirits, incorporated the legend of St. Lucia after the conversion to Christianity around 1000 AD, as a festival of light during the darkest time of the year. 

In the modern celebration of St. Lucia, girls are dressed as Lucia in white dresses and carry candles in a procession of light, led by one girl with a crown or wreath of candles on her head. At schools a new Lucia is typically chosen every year. Boys participate as “star boys,” playing different roles associated with Christmas. The kids in the procession sing songs and hand out Lussekatter (saffron buns) and other Christmas cookies.


Lucia procession (photo by Claudia Gründer)


Growing up in Norway, what was St. Lucy's Day like for you?

Luciadagen (St. Lucy’s Day) is widely recognized across Scandinavia, even among the non-religious. It reminds us that Christmas is coming, and it offers a welcome break from our everyday activities. It's also a good reminder that the days are getting longer and lighter as winter can get long and dark up north.

Most preschools, daycares, and schools celebrate St. Lucy's Day with a procession of light. At my school, one grade was responsible for the procession every year and most girls wanted to be the main Lucia and have the honor of leading the procession throughout the school. I remember the anticipation as a child, hearing them reach the classroom next door while trying to focus on what the teacher was saying, and then finally the knock on the door, opening to a procession of girls and boys dressed in white, carrying candles, handing out saffron buns and singing the song we all knew by heart: 

The night treads heavily
Around yards and dwellings
In places unreached by sun.
The shadows brood,
Into our dark house she comes,
bearing lighted candles,
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.

Even at my university, as students were frantically studying for their last finals before Christmas, when December 13 came around, St. Lucy’s Day offered a most welcome break from academics every year. Several preschools from around town dressed up and walked through campus in a procession of light, singing songs and handing out saffron buns and gingerbread cookies.


Lucia procession (photo credit)


What was your favorite part of the day?

My favorite part was always the procession of light. Remember that while the sunrise here in Colorado in December is around 7 am, it was significantly darker where I grew up, and we didn't have daylight until 9:30 or 10 am this time of year, lasting only for about five hours, and farther north they have no daylight at all. There was something so magical as a child to hear the knock on the classroom door, to have the teacher turn off all the lights before opening to welcome a procession of singing, live candles, and the sweet smell of pepperkaker (gingerbread cookies) and saffron buns. Even as a child who didn't grow up learning about the significance of Christ at Christmastime, my heart was deeply moved by that image of light piercing the darkness.

What are simple things families can do to incorporate St. Lucy's Day into their Advent season?

Thankfully, celebrating St. Lucy’s day does not require much preparation. Find a few candles, live or electric, and white dresses or pajamas if you want to do a procession. But even just sitting down as a family either in the morning while it is still dark or in the afternoon after the sun sets is enough. Light the candles, read the legend of St. Lucy, and talk about the True Light that came down. And just like St. Lucy, whether we are carrying candle wreaths or not, we are the light of the world, pointing this world to Christ.

Have your children help you make make saffron buns, and bring them to neighbors, friends, or someone in need of encouragement and love. I also think this day can be a good day to pray with your children for persecuted Christians and the many Christians around the world who suffer because of their faith even today. Good resources for prayer and conversation about unreached people groups and the persecuted church are Joshua Project, Operation World (a project of WEC International), and Voice of the Martyrs.

Do you have a recipe for saffron buns?!

Yes! Check out the recipe here. These buns are delicious and will fill your home with a delightful aroma for the holidays.


Lucia buns (photo by Tomhe)


Other resources

Check out our page on Advent feastdays, including St. Lucy's Day, and read our essay "Following the Example of Saints." We think today is a perfect day to learn and teach about St. Lucy, a compassionate yet fearless young woman who paid the ultimate price for her faith. Here's a prayer for the day, drawn from the Revised Common Lectionary:

God of joy and exultation, you strengthen what is weak; you enrich the poor and give hope to those who live in fear. Look upon our needs this day. Make us grateful for the good news of salvation and keep us faithful in your service until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives for ever and ever. Amen.

The colors of Advent and Christmas

For most people, the holidays mean red and green, perhaps a vestige of the "paradise trees" hung with apples that were forerunners of our modern Christmas trees.

But in traditional churches at this time of year, you'll see different colors. Purple is the main color for the Advent season, though some churches prefer deep or royal blue. For the third Sunday of Advent — the Sunday of Joy — the chosen color is rose (pink) to reflect the joy in our hearts as Christmas nears. White and gold are the traditional colors for Christmas.


Here's some further insight on these color choices. In church tradition, purple is associated with sorrow, prayer, and penitence. It's the liturgical color for Lent, and history suggests that Advent developed as a kind of parallel to Lent — both are seasons of preparing for the great celebratory feasts, Christmas and Easter.

To distinguish Advent from Lent, many Protestant churches, including Anglicans and Lutherans, use deep or royal blue instead of purple. I, personally, prefer the blue. It symbolizes royalty — a coming King. It’s also the color of the sky in the cold, dark hours just before dawn. Blue perfectly reflects the expectant, hope-filled themes of Advent. 

The Sunday of Joy marks the midway point of Advent. It's a turning point in the season, and the mood lightens as we begin our joyous preparations for Christmas! The third candle of the Advent wreath is often rose (pinkas a symbol of joy.


Finally, white and gold mean joy, celebration, triumph, glory, and purity. They're the colors for both Christmas and Easter. The Christ candle at the center of the Advent wreath, which is lit on Christmas Day and throughout the 12-day Christmas season, is often white or gold.

Red and green will always be popular during this season, but consider using some of the traditional colors in your own holiday practices. If your church follows a particular color pattern for the season, use that in your home. Otherwise, find out what others in your church are doing, and do it together! The journey through Advent and Christmas, as with all seasons of the Church Calendar, is more joyous when done in community.

For more information, check out our Advent practices pages: Advent Wreath and Decorating the Home.

Songs for Advent

One of our big goals at KeepingAdvent.com is to reacquaint Christians with the Church Calendar and recover Advent as a distinct sacred season

One way we do this in our own home is through music. Along with Christmas carols and winter songs, we mix in music that reflects the waiting, longing, and ache of Advent. Here's what we're listening to right now.

Advent by The Brilliance

We love pretty much anything by The Brilliance, and their Advent Volume 1, Advent Volume 2, and Advent B Sides are among our favorites. Follow our playlist on Spotify to listen. (Note: Advent Volume 2 is not available on Spotify, so check out iTunes.)

I have so many favorites on these albums. This year, "May You Find a Light" has risen to the top of my list:

There are weary travelers, searching everywhere you go.
Strangers who are searching, longing deeply to be known.
May you find a light.

Midwinter Carols by Joel Clarkson

I'm so grateful to have discovered Joel Clarkson's Midwinter Carols this year — a collection of eight ancient carols and two original interludes, all set to instrumental piano, that I can only describe as musically exquisite. I've put the album on our Spotify, and you can buy it on iTunes. 

Joel's rendition of the 17th-century "Sussex Carol" is especially delightful, not least because of the song's unusual, lilting rhythm. (Nobody uses the 6/4 time signature anymore!)

Advent 24: A playlist for Advent

We've curated a playlist for Advent that we call Advent 24 — 24 hymns and songs full of warning, sorrow, joy, ache, and hope. Check out the Advent 24 page for the playlist and lyrics, and listen on Spotify and YouTube