He was made deacon by the disciples of Jesus Christ and, just like them, was able to cure the ailing using his hands. Elated by his faith, St. Stephen became Archdeacon of the Christian municipality of Jerusalem which took care of widows and the needy. It was run very fairly, and this aroused the enmity of Judeans who slandered St. Stephen to the Sanhedrin and accused him of blasphemy. At the Sanhedrin the saint refuted all accusations, denouncing the Judeans’ lack of faith, citing examples from the entire history of the Jewish people from the times of Abraham to King Solomon. But the saint was handed over to the crowd to be stoned to death. It is said that the Mother of God and St. John the Theologian witnessed his death and prayed for him. In death, St. Stephen asked God to forgive his enemies. As the centuries went by, the saint’s martyrdom faded from memory and it was only at the end of the 4th century, when his relics were found, that the memory of St. Stephen was fully revived as a model of compassion and patience.
According to early Armenian and Latin sources, the church commemorated St. Stephen on 26 December. Later, in Byzantium, the church designated 26 December as the Synaxis of the Most Holy Mother of God, and the day of St. Stephen was pushed to 27 December, as it has remained to this day. The day of St. Stephen is inextricably linked to Nativity.
One of the symbols of Bulgarian Orthodoxy – the Iron Church in Istanbul, connected with the struggle for ecclesiastical independence, bears the name of St. Stephen. The Bulgarian Christian Orthodox temple is a cross-shaped basilica with a nave and two aisles and with beautiful ornamentation made out of iron. The altar faces the Golden Horn and it has a 40-metre high belfry. The Iron Church was built in the 19th century when there were 50,000 Bulgarians living in Istanbul. It was inaugurated by Exarch Joseph I on the day of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, 8 December, 1898.
In popular tradition, the day of St. Stephen is said to “close the circle” of Christmas feast days. On this day families get together for a meal of sauerkraut with meat and banitsa, again with meat. The young visit with their godfather and godmother, their best man and their elder relatives. December 27th is celebrated as a name day by all people called Stefan, Stefana, Stefka, Venko, Stoyan, Stoyko, Stoichko, Stoimen and their derivatives.
English version: Milena Daynova
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