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Monday, December 16, 2019

Staffan the Stable Boy

It's Christmas night. The dark winter sky is hovering above a snow-covered landscape. Nature is lifeless and quiet; only the stars seem to breathe. It is Christmas peace, and a bright star is reminiscent of the one who shone above the manger of Christ. On this holy night, one would think that humans too would find peace. Suddenly however, the sound of feet drifts across the courtyard. A torch moves across to the stables, and after a while riders in wild gallop is seen leaving the farms, following the road to the nearest neighbor. Shouting and and screaming interrupt the silence of the night.
Such nightly rides bore some resemblance to the dreaded åsgårdsreien (Eng. the wild hunt)- only worse. With their shrieks and bawls, the riders made as much havoc as they could, knocking down the doors, banging on the timber walls. At each door they got a sip of the mighty Christmas beer, and as the night unfolded, the more intense the riding became. Not seldom did a rider fall off his horse, making the animal run home unaccompanied. 

Yet these rides were not solidly an excuse to kicking down the neighbour's door for a taste of the Christmas beer. There were also had a earnest idea involved; for it was said that one should go out to the crack of dawn with the horses and let them drink of the wells. There were some springs in particular which had a reputation for their clean water, and it was important to be there first; it was "holy water," and whoever drank first, drank wine; the horses would thrive of such water. As a result, there was a violent race race to come first, people rode like crazy. Coming in second was simply not an option, stories tell even of lives being lost. This nocturnal race called for the "'Staffan's race," and songs about him have been sung in Scandinavia since the Middle Ages. Staffan was a stableboy, watering his horses… These lines of text are among our oldest musical treasures. But who was he really - this Steffan?

The biblical Staffan - Stephen – we already encounter in the Acts of the Apostles; shortly after Jesus' death, the number of disciples is increasing continuously. The original twelve apostles need help in the practical work of a fast-growing congregation and appoint seven men to help. One of them is Stephen - the stable boy of King Herrod. Stephen does not content himself with serving food without preaching; Stephen start doing wonders on his own which, eventually, resulting in him being being stoned to death by an angry crowd, as the first Christian martyr. Consequently, Stephen quickly became a revered saint and the deacons appointed Stefanus as their patron saint. His increasing popularity led to the legends surrounding his life story, legends that were both colorful and imaginative – and completely devoid of reality.

The rooster miracle depicted on an altar front from the 1100s. Originating from Broddetorp's church in Västergötland, the altar piece is exhibited at the Historical Museum in Stockholm.

One of the legends tells about how Stephen on the night of Christmas Eve sees the Star of Bethlehem. He understands that it is a sign that the King of Judah, the Savior, has been born. Stephen tells of his discovery of Herod. The king refuses to believe his words, unless the fried rooster lying on his breakfast table rises, flaps his wings and crows. Of course, this is exactly what happens. The king is horrified at how powerful this newborn king must be who can already do such wonders. He decides to kill the child who threatens his kingdom. Stefanus himself is captured and stoned to death outside the city walls. “The rooster miracle”, as the event was called, became the prelude to the Massacre of the Innocents; by Herod’s orders, all boys two years of age and younger in Bethlehem and its vicinity, should be killed. In the Middle Ages there was a widely held belief that the child murders in Bethlehem were the first and perhaps most cruel of the martyrs.

In medieval Scandinavia, the legend of Stefanus, or Staffan as he is called here, takes on a quite different approach in which the horses play an important role. It's Christmas night and Staffan has ridden out to a well to water Herod's horses. But a horse refuses to drink from the water. It has seen the reflection of the star in the water and rears frightened into the night sky. 

Staffan stable boy and the star depicted on the ceiling of Dädesjö church in Småland.

Images of Staffan with his horses or in conjunction with the rooster miracle became popular in the early medieval Scandinavian art. The motif is often found on baptismal fonts as part of the story of Jesus' birth. The fact that it became so popular may have to do with the long and protracted Christianization process that characterized especially the ancient Sweden. Around the year 1100, the majority of the Swedish population was still pagan. It took nearly 300 years for Christianity to gain a foothold. The long missionary period caused Bible stories to emerge at the same time as a later developed cult of saints. The legend of Stephen and Herod must have been quite remodeled when it came to the Nordic countries, for then to be transformed by local traditions. In the Old Norse cult, the horse was put in the center and Christmas was a time when you should take special care of your horses. Making pagan customs Christian became a way for the new religion to establish itself. The legend of Stefan and Herod is a typical example of this initiation.

With Gustaf Vasa and the Reformation, the Catholic saint traditions connected to Stephen was abolished. Staffan the stable boy however, did not lose his popularity. During the 18th century, it was common to go horseback racing, in relation with the Staffan cult, and long into the 20th century he remained a part of the Christmas plays and carols, performed on his memorial day, the 26th of December.

Nowadays, the songs about Steffan stable boy has been as become a cherished part of the Lucia-celebration, as a companion of the female saint. "Staffansvisan", "Sankt Staffan" or "Staffan was a stable boy" is a well known and traditionally bound Swedish Lucia song, which is usually performed by the star boys in a so called Lucia proseccion.


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