The day after Christmas is another feast celebrating Christianity’s first martyr: Saint Stephen’s Day, in French, Fête de Saint-Etienne or La Sainte-Etienne. In English-speaking countries, this date is known as Boxing Day. In this article, we will go back in time to learn more about the origin of Saint Stephen’s Day in France. And to finish with style, we will go on a ‘Boxing Day in France’ walk in the streets of Paris.
Saint Stephen’s Day in France
Who is Saint Stephen?
Very little is known about Stephen, the biblical character from the Acts of the Apostles. He appears at the beginning of chapter 6 of Acts, where he is presented as a Hellenistic Jew who recognised Jesus as the Messiah. Accused of blasphemy by the Sanhedrin (a kind of supreme court of Israel), he was sentenced to be stoned to death. Before dying, Stephen said:
“I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:56)
The execution of the first martyr of Christianity probably took place in the year 33 AD, but some historians put forward other hypotheses (31, 32, 36 or 39 AD).
What’s in a name?
Stephen’s Greek name is Stephanos, which means “crown”. From this word are derived the first names Stephan, Steven, Steve, Esteban and the French name Etienne…
Saint-Stephen – or Saint-Etienne has given his name to several cathedrals in France: Adge, Auxerre, Besançon, Bourges, Cahors, Châlons-en-Champagne, Limoges, Meaux, Saint-Brieuc, Sens, Toulouse, Vienne… In Lorraine, two cathedrals are dedicated to him: Metz and Toul.
The day of ‘La Saint-Etienne’
Although 26 December commemorates Saint Stephen, in truth, it mainly gives more importance to Christmas by extending the festive season.
Thus, 26 December is a public holiday in many European countries:
- the United Kingdom,
- and Switzerland (except in the French-speaking cantons of Geneva, Jura, Vaud and Valais).
France is a particular case; nowadays, Saint Stephen’s Day is not a public holiday, except in Alsace and the Lorraine département of Moselle.
In reality, Saint Stephen’s Day was a public holiday in France until 1905. That year, the Law of Separation of Church and State abolished religious holidays.
At the time, Alsace and Moselle were attached to Germany, where 26 December was also a holiday.
When the three départements rejoined France in 1918, they refused to give up the advantages and privileges acquired or preserved during the German period.
This rule also applies to Good Friday, which precedes Easter Sunday.
The shopping rush on 26 December
This public holiday, exclusive to Alsace-Moselle, has encouraged a phenomenon visible at the territories’ borders: the shopping rush.
On 26 December, while the streets of Metz and Mulhouse are quiet, the atmosphere in Nancy and Belfort is entirely different, as the shops and cafés are open.
Therefore, many people from Metz and Mulhouse go to the shopping areas in neighbouring départements (Meurthe-et-Moselle, Territoire-de-Belfort), even if the trend has slowed down in recent years with the derogatory openings in Alsace-Moselle.
Is Boxing Day celebrated in France?
In the Commonwealth countries (United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), Saint Stephen’s Day has remained an important public holiday: this is Boxing Day.
The origin of the festival dates back to the 15th century. The tradition is based on the character of Stephen in the New Testament. The apostles chose the first Christian martyr to distribute alms to the poor. From this comes the idea of charity and almsgiving associated with 26 December.
The boxes of Boxing Day
There are several traditions behind the presence of boxes on Boxing Day.
From the 15th century onwards, many churches in England provided visitors with an offering box (a trunk). The box remained sealed until 26 December. Once opened, the money was distributed to charities, the poor, and beggars in the church.
In the 19th century, another tradition was added to the charitable idea of Boxing Day. English upper-middle-class families gave servants the day after Christmas off to visit their families. Before leaving, the master of the house would give them a box full of gifts and foodstuffs – usually the leftovers from Christmas dinner.
The Boxing Day sales
Today, that specific charitable idea of Boxing Day gave way to the post-Christmas shopping frenzy. December 26th marks the first day of winter sales in Britain. The British counterpart to the American Black Friday, the Boxing Day sales are now losing ground, with the former gradually replacing the latter.
However, it is still a day for family reunions and gatherings. Leftovers from the Christmas dinner are served, and people can go for a collective walk (a tradition inherited from the old wren hunts).
Read more about the Christmas season on our French blog!
A stroll on Boxing Day in Paris
Two-year-old Aimée and her daddy Pierre started their walk early in the morning… Well, 8.15 am to be precise, in our suburb of Maisons-Laffite, where we enjoyed a stunning sunrise before taking the RER into Paris.
Notre Dame cathedral
Inside the cathedral, there was a monumental Nativity Scene from Poland.
Once outside, we continued our stroll to the square of the Paris City Hall. But before crossing the Seine, there is an old residential street I always like to take. The café ‘Au Vieux Paris’ had an outdoor Nativity Scene amidst Christmassy decorations.
On the square of Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, an exhibition (Noah’s Ark of modern times) was set for the COP21 international climate conference. It featured a large multicoloured herd of 140 animal figures to sensibilise people about the consequences of global warming.
Châtelet and surroundings
We then walked towards the Louvre via the rue de Rivoli, Châtelet and the Quai de la Mégisserie with fine views of iconic Parisian monuments such as Tour Saint-Jacques, Conciergerie, Pont-Neuf and the Eiffel Tower.
Surprisingly, weeping willow trees on the western tip of the Île de la Cité had received fresh new leaves for Christmas:
A few Christmas trees decorated with baubles are found on the Place du Louvre in front of the church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois and the City Hall of the 1st arrondissement. Can you see the photographer’s reflection?
We entered the church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois opposite the Louvre. There was another Nativity Scene to discover.
The Louvre and Tuileries
The weather was still delightful when we reached the Louvre and its succession of courtyards.
The Tuileries Garden was filled with people enjoying the fine day.
The luxury Meurice Hotel was decorated for the festive season with elegant trees on the rue de Rivoli.
The rue de Castiglione led us to the famous Place Vendôme. The Column of Napoleon was visible after the removal of scaffoldings that had been placed for the restoration work of the monument.
This year, twin pointed Christmas trees were placed at the four angles of the square.
Grands-Boulevards and La Madeleine
Then we headed for the Grands Boulevards. Off the Boulevard des Capucines is a little pedestrian street called Rue Édouard VII.
Our final destination was the church of La Madeleine.
Inside we looked for the Nativity Scene… only to find a shocking one made of poultry netting by sculptor Pauline Ohrel called ‘Revelations’. Needless to say, the crib disturbed many people by reading the guest book! One comment was quite enjoyable, though, as it linked this ‘simple and modest Nativity scene’ to the birth of Jesus, which took place in a precarious way.
After a 10 km walk, it was time to head back home. I pulled Aimée in her pushchair to the direction of the Auber station… We had such a nice outing in Paris!
Featured image: Photo by ShintarTatsiana via Envato Elements