The first feast day after Christmas is December 26, St. Stephen’s Day. This is usually a quiet day spent with family and friends, probably because everyone is so wiped out after all the Christmas feasting. In some countries, it is a day of parties and families go from house to house visiting friends.
In Finland everyone rides down the street on horse drawn sleighs with festive bells for “the ride of St. Stephen”. In Catalonia, part of Spain, there is a large festive meal with canelons, which are stuffed with meat from the previous day’s Christmas feast.
In Ireland, it is called “Day of the Wren”. In some parts of Ireland, children go door to door with a wren in a cage or a small bird statue on a stick. At each house they will sing and dance and collect money for charity. This is much tamer than the past, where a wren was killed and the corpse was tied to a holly bush or a stick and taken from door to door. The “wren boys” would blacken their faces or wear masks and old clothes and go house to house asking for money. They would offer a feather from the dead bird in exchange for money. The feather was thought to be good luck. The money was then used to have a “wren dance” for the village. They would sing the following song as they went from house to house:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Although he is little, his family is great,
I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.
My box would speak, if it had but a tongue,
And two or three shillings, would do it not wrong,
Sing holly, sing ivy–sing ivy, sing holly,
A drop just to drink, it would drown melancholy.
And if you draw it of the best,
I hope in heaven your soul will rest;
But if you draw it of the small,
It won’t agree with these wren boys at all.
This tradition has several explanations. The first was that in Celtic tradition the robin represented the new year and the wren the old year, and the robin killed the wren to show the new replacing the old. The other explanation is that St. Stephen, the martyr whose feast day is being celebrated, was betrayed to his enemies by the singing of a wren. Another legend says that the invading Vikings were warned of an Irish counter attack by a wren pecking seeds off a drum. All of these were explanations why the wren must be stoned
or pursued until it died of exhaustion.
Most of us know of St. Stephen’s Day because of the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas. This was a carol that was written in Victorian times by John Mason Neale to a traditional British tune. It is based on a story of Wenceslas, Duke of Bohemia, was said to have brought food to poor peasants in his kingdom “on the feast of Stephen”. This would not have been out of character for Wenceslas, but it is thought this is a made up story. Wenceslas was the Duke of Bohemia for four years, and a good Christian. He was deposed by his pagan brother Boleslav in 935. During Wenceslas’ reign, he instituted an education system as well as reformed the law system.
The story the carol is based on is written by a Czech poet, Vaclav Alois Svoboda in 1847. He wrote it in three languages- Czech, Latin and German. Neale heard it and set it to the tune of “Tempus Adest Floridum”, and it became the carol that we know and love.