Culture History

Why Saint Stephen’s Day is So Significant in Italy

December is a time when Italians celebrate multiple holidays, from the Feast of the Immaculate Conception to Christmas. One Holiday you may not be as familiar with is Saint Stephen's Day.

Il Giorno di Santo Stefano (St. Stephen’s feast Day) has been a public holiday in Italy since 1947. Celebrated on December 26th, numerous Italians continue eating with family, others rest, and many take trips out of town to celebrate. The Italian State decided to make this date a public holiday to extend the Christmas celebrations. Therefore, organizations and businesses such as banks, schools, and post offices are closed. 

Why Is St. Stephens Day Celebrated on December 26th? 

On the Day immediately after Christmas Day, “comites Christi” are honored and celebrated (the saints closest to Jesus on earth who witnessed Christ through martyrdom). 

Who Was St. Stephen?

St. Stephen was a Hellenize Jew (A Jew who was Greek in culture but not in ancestry) and opposed the Temple cult of Judaism. In around 33 CE, he was brought before the Sanhedrin for expressing his opinion and condemned to be stoned to death.

St. Stephen’s story is in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. He is considered the first Christian martyr and was one of the first deacons of the Christian Church. The Apostles heard that their Greek-speaking widows were being neglected during the distribution of alms. Thus, they appointed seven deacons to oversee this distribution and assure fairness. St. Stephen was one of seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to care for widows, orphans, and elderly women and is known for his service to the poor. Of the seven chosen, St. Stephen was the oldest and given the title “archdeacon.” His popularity created many rivals among the Jews, and members of the Synagogue of Roman Freedmen accused St. Stephen of blasphemy and entered a debate with him, which he won. The members of the Synagogue of Roman Freedmen could not accept St. Stephen winning the debate, so they put him on trial. 

Multiple false witnesses brought forward by the Sanhedrin testified that he was guilty of blasphemy. In response, St. Stephen described the history of Israel and explained the blessing God provided the nation. He looked up and saw a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God and stated, “Look, I can see heaven thrown open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 

The crowd grew enraged and carried him outside the city to stone him. While being stoned to death, he stated his last words, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Where Do Italians Go on St. Stephen’s Day?

While many stay in, others go out to people-filled centers to cherish living nativity scenes. Italians go out with friends for una passeggiata, a traditional walk around the town, observe stunning Christmas lights, and make donations to their churches. In Padova, over 300 locals reenact a story about Santo Stefano every year. 

What Do Italians Eat on St. Stephens’s Day? 

Since Christmas Day is full of numerous dishes, the menu on St. Stephen’s Day is relatively simple. Many Italians enjoy leftovers and simple-to-prepare dishes. In Northern Italy, it is typical to make stracciatella, a traditional soup made with broth, eggs, Parmesan cheese, and nutmeg. Moving south, many individuals in Campania eat pizza fritta and octopus salad. For dessert, Italians enojoy classics, including Panettone, Pandoro, and mostaccioli cookies.


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