Italian national holidays are, for the most part, Catholic holidays.
This means that Italians not only get a day off work for things like Labor Day and Republic Day (think, 4th of July for Italians) but also for Ferragosto (Mary’s Assumption into heaven) All Saint’s Day, the Immaculate Conception, Christmas and Santo Stefano, celebrated the day after Christmas.
So who is Santo Stefano and why does he get his own strategically placed holiday?
Santo Stefano, or St. Stephen, was the first-ever Catholic martyr, known as a protomartyr. His feast day is December 26th, along with many other saints on the consecutive days who were nearest to Christ when he was still alive.
Actually, it’s celebrated in most countries throughout Europe: Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Montenegro, Norway, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Ukraine, Switzerland and of course, Italy.
In Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, it’s typically known as Boxing Day, or the day workers often receive packages (boxes) from their employers.
That said, the saint’s feast day wasn’t an official public holiday in Italy until 1947, when the Italian Republic decided to make the day after Christmas a public holiday for all, effectively making the Christmas holiday exponentially better, creating new traditions and promoting gratitude for St. Stephen throughout the country.
Like with many Catholic holidays, the feast day of Santo Stefano is now so much more than a day to remember the saint’s unfair death. It’s a continuation of the Christmas holidays. It’s the winding down of a long holy day feasting with family. Christmas is over and the inevitable stress that comes with it finished. The celebrations continue, only now with less expectations. It’s a day to see “the other side of the family”, to celebrate Christmas with friends, to continue our auguri or best wishes to our loved ones and close the Christmas season with a relaxing sigh, rather than a bang.
If you find yourself in Italy during Christmastime, be sure to count this important day among the days that most everything is closed. Restaurants, museums and most supermarkets will still be closed on December 26th, so plan accordingly. It’s a languid day between festa and normal life, and should be spent as such. Stroll off your Christmas dinner with no itinerary in mind. Have a hotel picnic, write postcards, read books or spend the day on the train to arrive from one destination to the next.
On Santo Stefano, the entire country exhales in unison. Exhale along with us.