Christian martyrdom, a tiny bird, and emotional hot whiskeys with returned emigrants: Welcome to St Stephen’s Day in Ireland
It’s the day for morning-to-night televised sport, breakfast turkey sandwiches and attritional “12 Pubs of Christmas” get-togethers that go from lunchtime high spirits to sozzled last orders. But what is St Stephen’s Day, really? Is it something more than just part two of the winter holiday? Let’s dive in and find out.
St Stephen’s Day and the Extended Christmas
Perhaps Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby are to blame.
“White Christmas”, written by Berlin and performed by Bing in the 1942 musical film Holiday Inn, made number 1 for 11 straight weeks that year, and returned to the top of the charts in 1943 and ‘44. This was in the midst of the war years, with Hitler’s marauders stampeding across Europe and nobody really sure what sort of world the next few months might bring.
“White Christmas”, with its air of nostalgia for the past and hope for the future, struck a chord in the 1940s and it’s been striking the same chord ever since. Mostly, it’s been striking that chord in shopping malls all over the world, those depth of nostalgia and hope persuading shoppers subliminally to mark the occasion with a gift or ten for loved ones and in-laws alike.
Like Hallowe'en [see our Hallowe'en blog article], Valentine’s Day, Mothering Sunday and other occasions, over almost a century or so Christmas has become a heavily marketed and marketable holiday.
But while Christmas amounts to little more than the day itself in many parts of the world, quickly giving way to work and normality and everyday chores before the final jamboree of New Year’s Eve, in other parts of the world, and in Ireland especially, Christmas extends to much more than just a single day.
Memories of school holidays lasting two full weeks go bone-deep in many Irish people, such that the idea of “Christmas” lasts from before Christmas Eve right the way into January. Indeed, the old Christian festival lasted twelve days, starting on Christmas Day and going all the way to the night of January 5th, or Twelfth Night, and drawing to a close with the feast day of January 6th, which has over the centuries become known as everything from The Epiphany — in western Christianity a celebration of the visit of the Magi or “Three Wise Men” to the baby Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem — to Little Christmas or, especially in Ireland, Nollaig na mBan or “Women’s Christmas”.
This two-week midwinter festival of family, friends and feasts has been eroded slightly by the needs of modernity and productivity, but for many people, and especially for many in Ireland, Christmas is still much more than just one day, and in this extended celebration, it is St Stephen’s Day on December 26th that is a true highlight.
[image source: Song of the Isles]
What makes St Stephen’s Day special in Ireland?
It may be difficult for many people around the world to fully appreciate the depth of feeling that Irish people in particular attach to St Stephen’s Day.
The reasons range from the spiritual—a second successive day of Christian celebrations, this one the feast day of Stephen, the first Christian martyr—to the practical—a welcome day of rest after all the hectic planning and work that goes into roasting a turkey and ham for an extended family of 15—to altogether more flesh-bound interests.
After a day of enforced closure of licensed establishments (after laws were changed in recent years allowing alcohol to be sold on Good Friday, Christmas Day is now the only day of the year when pubs in Ireland are forced to shut their doors), St Stephen’s Day is the biggest day of the year for pubs all over Ireland.
Premier League football, World Championship Darts and top-class horseracing offer ample entertainment on the TV screens between conversation and endless rounds of pints, cocktails, mocktails and the ubiquitous hot whiskey, a shot of the spirit mixed with sugar, lemon and cloves, topped up with boiling water and stirred together into a drink that many believe tastes as much like Christmas as roast meat and gravy.
It’s true, also, that the status of the Irishman and Irishwoman as emigrants, travelers and perennial nomads—in mind as well as in body—makes this day at the bar even more unique.
Gather everyone from an Irish town in a fine establishment on a typical Saturday night and give them a free bar for the night, and you still won’t get close to the unique annual atmosphere of St Stephen’s Night, when so many people who have made homes in San Francisco or Sydney or Boston or Beijing and have returned to the old country for a fleeting few days convene to share stories of making a life and a living elsewhere.
The locals, both those who felt left behind or those who didn’t feel the need to flee, might look on the returning prodigal sons and daughters with a peculiarly Irish emotion that mixes wonderment, admiration, envy, bitterness, and pity.
Often, you will find enough brave souls combine this locals-and-emigrants pub celebration with the so-called “12 Pubs of Christmas”, which doubles as both a day-long rekindling of old friendships and a winter war of attrition where the last man (or woman) standing late in the night receives some form of dubious bragging rights, at least until the next get-together/war-of-attrition in a year or more’s time.
[image source: Transceltic]
Not that everyone in Ireland is propping up the bar to hear the news from overseas.
There are many who will have their feet up in front of the fire, steadily emptying boxes of chocolates—one guaranteed way to spark a lively debate with any Irish person is to ask them their favorite, Roses and Quality Street—and watching a range of festive films from Home Alone to back-to-back Indiana Jones and Back to the Future to Die Hard, all movies that get better and better with repeat viewings as a family in a sitting room adorned with the glow of a Christmas tree heavily laden with baubles and bright lights.
When the tinfoil is taken off the turkey for another round of turkey sandwiches late in the evening, you and your loved ones can munch away to your heart’s content while quietly reflecting on another year over.
Who was St. Stephen?
It is perhaps fitting in the Christian calendar that Christmas Day itself—marking the birth of Jesus—is followed immediately by the feast day of Stephen.
Stephen is considered to have been the first Christian martyr.
He was one of seven people appointed by the 12 apostles to help spread the word of Christ and take care of the community. His life and death are told in the New Testament book, the Acts of the Apostles, where his great wisdom is praised, a mark of the Holy Spirit and his closeness to God, before his death by stoning is recounted following apparently false accusations from naysayers that he was not in fact a holy man.
One witness testified that Stephen “never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” (Acts, 6:13-14)
When the high priest asked Stephen for his response, Stephen gave a long speech about the idolatry of the priests in the temple, about Moses and about the persecution of prophets. “Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute?” said Stephen to his accusers. They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him. You who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.” (Acts, 7:52-53)
This was too much for his accusers, who angrily dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death. In his final moments, Stephen was heard to say, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”, an act of forgiveness that seemed to confirm Stephen as a man of God.
This early Christian Stephen, who is believed to have died around 36 AD—within a couple of years of the crucifixion of Christ—is not to be confused with another St Stephen from a thousand years later, who united Hungary in Christianity before being canonized by the Church in 1083.
[image source: CERC]
St Stephen’s Day, Wren Boys and the Hunting of the Wren
The "Wren Boys Procession," also known as the "Hunting of the Wren," is a traditional event in Ireland that has long taken place on the day after Christmas, or St. Stephen's Day.
As with many other Christian festivals in Ireland, especially St Brigid’s Day/Imbolc in early February [see our St. Brigid's Day article], the midwinter feast which has over millennia become known as Christmas is also likely to have roots in even older pagan traditions.
The Wren Boys, and more broadly the idea of the Wren as a complex animal, may play a part in that.
The wren is Ireland’s tiniest bird but is a fittingly complex creature. Known as the “king of the birds” because of mythological stories that detailed its ability to outwit its rivals through cunning and deceit, it is at the center of complex stories that combine good with evil and temptation with salvation.
Much of the specifics of its origins are clouded by possibly variant traditions across different jurisdictions and religious or pre-religious traditions.
In one story, the wren is held to have betrayed the hiding place of Stephen and led to his martyrdom. In another, which is most closely associated with the Isle of Man, a small island in the Irish Sea just 50 miles or so from Ireland and under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, where mythology tells a story about a temptress fairy siren who lured men of the island to their deaths.
The story goes that:
She went all through the land, and wherever she appeared she put such enchantment on the men, by her beauty and her wonderful attractive powers, that they one and all left their work and their homes to follow her
eventually drowning in a river as they try to follow her across.
When the people realized what was happening and chased the fairy temptress away, she took the form of a wren to escape. Thereafter, the sacrificial killing of the wren, and the presentation of its tiny body to houses in a door-to-door procession, became representative of the challenges of living and being, where beauty and evil may take the same form at the same time, and a stark reminder of the moral and vital choices we face every day of our lives.
In more recent years, as modern sensibilities about violence towards defenseless creatures took hold, the sacrifice of a real bird has been replaced with an artificial animal.
The celebration, marked by Wren Boys wearing bird-like costumes and masks or face paint, perhaps carrying an effigy of a wren and going door-to-door to offer songs and dance, has become increasingly rare with the passing years, but still survives in parts of Ireland, especially along the west coast corridor where traditions are typically slower to change and protected by vital memories handed down from generation to generation.
[image source: The Brehon Academy]
In another example of the complex meaning of the wren, a community of persecuted women in 19th century Ireland were labeled “The Wrens of the Curragh”.
The women, many of whom were orphaned by the Great Famine and many of whom were forced to make a living by offering sex work to men stationed at the army camp at the Curragh in County Kildare, were described by the author Rose Doyle as a community of “unmarried mothers, free-thinkers, alcoholics, prostitutes, vagrants, ex-convicts and harvest workers”.
Cast out of normal society and effectively rendered homeless, they often lived in hovels in the ground, which some compared to the nests of the wren. The Wrens of the Curragh were covered by none other than Charles Dickens, who wrote about the women in his massively popular publication All the Year Round in 1864, and their experiences inspired a song called Hunting the Wren by the unique modern day Irish folk group Lankum.
So there you have it.
St Stephen’s Day in Ireland, as with so many Irish things: when you start peeling back the layers you’ll find more and more layers waiting to reveal their stories and myths and histories.
From the complexity of the tiny wren, to the spirit of forgiveness in life’s most difficult moments, to leftover turkey and chocolates unwrapped by the dozen, to hot whiskeys and mixed feelings at the pub counter late into the night, St Stephen’s Day in Ireland is a day truly like no other.