Medieval people generally believed that feasts were the way to honor saints, and the week after Christmas was particularly thick with saints to honor. That’s one reason that Christmas seemed like a feast that just went on and on.
St. Stephen’s Day was the day after Christmas. It was generally just a feast in honor of the first Christian martyr, but in some places, there was a gruesome custom as well. Legend told that Stephen was hiding from his would-be killers (no evidence for this in the original story), and would have escaped, but for a wren who gave away the hiding place by chirping to draw attention. Medieval boys had a penchant for targeting small animals anyway. With the excuse of St. Stephen’s legend, they tried to catch and kill wrens, perhaps by tying them to the foot and throwing rocks. It’s hard to believe this was truly widespread; it seems more likely that even medieval adults thought it was a bit sick or wrong and made note of the custom, which is why we have heard of it. On the other hand, cruelty to animals was routine.
Farmers traditionally bled their horses and cows on St. Stephen’s Day. Of course, they considered it good health care, not cruelty. In many monasteries, monks were preventatively bled at intervals, too. It will be very interesting if new medical theories ever start to show that bleeding does have a healing purpose, which right now is pretty contrary to our views of the role of blood.
December 28 was the Fast of the Holy Innocents, another group of early martyrs. The story in the Gospels is that when the Magi (Zoroastrians from Persia) met with Roman-appointed King Herod, they explained that they had read in the stars that a great king was born. Herod called in experts in Jewish scriptures to compare notes, and they outlined a time period during which this king ought to have been born, based on prophecies and the Magi’s observations.
The Magi were following diplomatic protocol by informing Herod of their presence in the area and may have been surprised to pick up that his reaction to their news was negative. They broke diplomatic protocol by leaving Judea without checking back in, which probably spared them arrest and interrogation as to where they’d been and who they’d met.
Joseph and Mary took the child into Egyptian territory, warned in a dream that King Herod was hunting for this “great king.” Herod set up a dragnet to capture all male babies born within a certain time frame in that region, and had them all executed. The timeline on these events is murky because Herod killed all infants under the age of two, whereas the story implies that Jesus was only 3 days old.
The Fast of the Holy Innocents brought to an end a sort of “children’s zone” that began with St. Nicholas Day. In places where the cathedral school boys were running around parodying the bishop, Holy Innocents Day was the end. Some boy bishops may have been permitted to close out the season with a sermon at the Mass of the Holy Innocents. It seems there’s no human tradition without its perverse, unexpected side, too. In some places, children were expected to honor the Holy Innocents by being whipped unfairly. In other places, they offered special prayers for children or even gave children some extra privileges to honor the day.