Christmas Day is almost upon us, but that isn’t the only late December holiday celebrated in Ireland. The very next day is St. Stephen’s Day, which is also known as Wren Day. And yes, December 26th is an official public holiday in Ireland. Although they share a date, St. Stephen’s Day and the British Boxing Day are completely unrelated with separate histories. St. Stephen’s Day’s colorful traditions are not as widely celebrated as they were just a generation ago, but some communities do hold tight to the old ways and enjoy the Irish gifts of storytelling, singing and honoring history. In urban areas, modern celebrations include relaxed visiting with families and enjoying the left over Christmas treats and watching the horse races.
St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was an associate of the 12 apostles, and they gave him the task of working toward a more fair distribution of charity to widows and the poor as certain groups were being favored by the authorities. Of course, the authorities did not appreciate his involvement, and had him stoned to death. Curiously, he is the patron saint of stonemasons. His last words were reportedly pleading with God to forgive his killers. In Ireland, he is associated with the wren bird because of a belief that he tried to escape his killers but a wren gave away his location. Another legend has it that a wren gave away Irish troops who were sneaking up on Cromwell’s men. A long memory when it comes to such treachery is one of those particularly Irish gifts.
The wren day traditions are still enjoyed in areas around Ireland, particularly in the villages. Given his association with betrayal, the wren was not a much loved bird. On St. Stephen’s Days of old, gangs of costumed lads would go out to hunt the wren, but bird lovers will be relieved to know the birds are no longer hunted or killed. The procession would then go door to door with the wren asking for a penny to bury the wren. The dead wren would then be buried with a penny, and the rest of the money raised would be used to hold a dance. There would be music with singing, which is still enjoyed to today although the wren boys are usually decades older than in the past, the costumes go beyond the traditional straw and the money is usually raised for charities.
St. Stephen’s Day is an essential part of the history and culture of the Irish. Gifts are not exchanged. Special foods are not prepared. You won’t see St. Stephen’s Day cards in the shops. It is a low key day for gathering together, whether at home, at the racetrack or in the local pub. St. Stephen’s Day doesn’t get a lot of hype. It doesn’t need it. The old rhymes still echo in Irish hearts.
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
on Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze.
Although he is little, his honor is great,
so please kind lady, give us a treat.
Yes, in parts of Ireland ‘treat’ does rhyme with ‘great’. Also, the holiday is normally pronounced Stephenses Day. No, there is no reason for the extra S.