A post dedicated to Stephen:
26th December marks the feast of St Stephen, named in honour of the first Christian stoned to death. It is not to be confused with ‘Boxing Day’ which may, or may not, fall on this day but is correctly the name given to the public holiday occurring immediately after Christmas Day. For instance where Christmas falls on a Friday, Boxing Day (a day when traditionally a Christmas Box would be given, containing coins) will fall on Monday 28th December. St Stephen’s Day is therefore a non-movable religious festival whereas Boxing Day is a movable, secular, one.
Today’s post looks at three different traditions associated with this day, starting with the horse. St Stephen was the patron saint of horses and in some parts of Northern Europe it is traditional to take the horses, suitably bedecked, to church to be blessed. Traditionally the Christmas break meant a ‘holiday’ for all working animals (of which the horse was the most important) and in some areas the horse was therefore awarded a special meal to mark the start of its ‘time off’. In other areas the equine connection is preserved in horse racing, where The King George VI Chase is the second-most important race in the jump-racing calendar (after the Cheltenham Gold Cup) and is held at Kempton Park today.
It is also the most important day in the fox-hunting calendar, with meets taking place across the country, despite the ban on hunting live animals.
A set of English stamps (1973) based upon the story of Wenceslas.
Secondly the day is always associated with ‘Good King Wenceslas’, who, as we all know, went out on the Feast of Stephen. And yes, there was a Wenceslas, who was pretty good by tenth century standards, though in truth he was a duke in Bohemia – now part of the Czech Republic – not a king. He was born in 907 into a family wracked by religious and political in-fighting. His grandparents had converted to Christianity and when Grandpa (Duke Borivoy the First) died he was succeeded by Ratislav. Borivoy’s widow Ludmila was entrusted to bring up Ratislav’s son Wenceslas, much to the chagrin of the boy’s own mother Drahomira. who had never converted to Christianity. When Ratislav died he was succeeded by young Wenceslas, a mere 13 year old, and the wicked Drahomira seized her chance, taking power as Regent. She ordered the death by strangulation of dear old Ludmila (well, that is what you did to mothers-in-law in those days) and a period of religious persecution followed. But when he reached the age of 18 Wenceslas saw off his wicked mother and took power for himself (I do hope you are following this at the back, questions will be asked later). He was a good but fair leader, ended the persecution of priests, and was generally a thoroughly good egg. His popularity didn’t go down too well with his duplicitous brother Boleslav, who had his own circle of followers opposed to the spread of Christianity. Boleslav invited his brother Wenceslas round for a cup of tea (or maybe something stronger) and then attacked him as he was going in to Mass. The rest of the dissidents piled in, and the hapless Wenceslas was killed, aged just 28. He quickly became Bohemia’s patron saint and most famous martyr.
In 1853 the English hymn writer John Mason Neale composed the now-familiar carol, setting the words to a medieval tune known as “Tempus adest floridum” (‘the time is near for flowering’) first published in the year 1582. And if you feel the need to hear it, put this in your browser:
Thirdly let us look at the oddest tradition of all, linked to that tiny little bird the wren, since today is also known as Wren Day in many areas of Ireland, and where traditions linked to stoning this smallest of birds to death are still to be found across the country. Echoes of the tradition are to be found on the Isle of Man and, centuries ago, on the English mainland and in particular in Wales. The tradition is so ancient it may well be druidic (the gaelic word for wren is dreoln, which possibly derives from draoi ean, or ‘Druid bird’). Why kill the bird? Well, perhaps the tradition simply marked the end of the year with a mid-winter sacrifice, or commemorated the early Christian attempts to drive out paganism, who knows for certain?
The wren has a reputation which its tiny frame belies. One story has it that the wren is the king of the birds, by virtue of a contest in the bird kingdom to find who could fly the highest: the mighty eagle soared into the skies, leaving all beneath him, except the wren which had hitched a ride on the eagle’s back. When the eagle tired and could ascend no more the wren flew a few feet above it, and landed to the acclamation that he was indeed the king of birds. In Druid lore the birds were a link between heaven and earth – it is possible the druids worshipped the wren and for this reason the Christians opposed it and celebrated the killing of the bird at Christmas time as a symbol of their new order.
But the bird also has a name for treachery, for betraying your whereabouts to your enemies. Legend has that it was a wren which alerted the Jews to where St Stephen was hiding, leading to his capture and death by stoning. And was it not the case that when Cromwell’s soldiers were asleep and the Irish were about to attack, a flock of wrens rose into the air and wakened the enemy with the sounds of their wing beats? Had the same thing not happened when the Viking invaders arrived eight centuries before?
There are a number of such myths and superstitions about the wren and for centuries the Wrenboys would spend the weeks leading up to Christmas either stoning and killing the wrens, or collecting them and tying them alive to a holly (or other evergreen) bush. The Wrenboys would then parade through the town on St Stephen’s Day, knocking on doors. Householders would be asked to give a penny ‘to pay for the funeral of the wren’ – anyone refusing would run the risk of the Wrenboys burying the bird outside their home, a certain way of bringing bad fortune for the year ahead. Anyone making a gift of money would be rewarded with a feather from the bird. This way the Wrenboys collected enough money to finance an evening of liquid revelry at the local hostelry… with singing and dancing. The wren on its decorated pole had pride of place.
Daniel Maclise illustration for S.C. Hall’s Ireland: Its Scenery and Character (1841).
Traditions varied: in some the Wren Boys dressed as mummers in straw costumes; in others they blackened their faces with cork and dressed in old clothes (sometimes women’s clothes). Meanwhile in West Kerry tradition has it that the dancers paraded with a wooden horse’s head – harking back to the time of pre-Christian horse worship. The introduction of Christianity meant that the horse effigy also had to be burnt, and it is this that the dancers commemorate.
The wren was also known as a wran and a number of songs grew up around the tradition. The most popular one (this, based upon a variant used in Cork) goes:
The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
St Stephens’s Day was caught in the furze.
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
Give us a penny to bury the wran.
Nowadays of course there is no bird killing – either a stuffed bird is tied to the holly pole, or a model of one, and this is decorated with ribbons and holly and used for the parade. One particular group of mummers from South West Fermanagh known as the Aughakillymaude Mummers, keeps alive the tradition of such celebrations: