Il giorno di Santo Stefano, or St. Stephen’s Day, is celebrated throughout Italy on December 26.
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While Italians typically celebrate Christmas Day by relaxing at home with family, St. Stephen’s Day is an occasion to go out and visit friends, extended family, and nearby churches that display nativity scenes for all to admire. Though venerated by Christians worldwide, Italians retain a special historical connection to the saint. Often regarded as the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen was tried and executed in Jerusalem around 34 AD. While the exact location of his burial is unknown, his relics were purported to be kept in the Castle of Monopoli, in the Puglia region of Italy. On December 26, 1394, the castle came under attack by the Saracen army, and St. Stephen’s remains were transported by wagon to the village of Putignano.
Overjoyed that their town had been chosen to house the holy relics, the villagers painted their faces and greeted the wagon with much celebration. From that time on, December 26 was celebrated as the feast day of St. Stephen, and the festivities in Putignano developed into what is now known as the oldest carnival celebration in Europe.
Today, Italians celebrate St. Stephen’s Day in a variety of ways. While some towns do hold processions similar to the one celebrated in Putignano, others enact elaborate live nativity scenes, or spend the day bringing food and gifts to the less fortunate. In Rome and other large cities, churches and cathedrals open their doors to visitors who wish to view the glorious nativity displays and the relics of saints held within. A day of feasting, celebration, and helping those in need, St. Stephen’s Day is one of the most joyful dates on any Italian’s calendar.