St Stephen’s Day, also known as ‘Boxing Day’, ‘Wren Day’ and The Feast Day of Saint Stephen, is celebrated on 26 December. Feast Days in the Christian calendar are associated with the date of the death of a saint and their transition into Heaven.
Because of the various traditions now associated with St Stephen’s Day, the origins of the saint are somewhat lost. He was born in Jerusalem, but the date of his birth is unknown. It is believed that he was of Jewish Greek descent and that his family had settled in Jerusalem.
Stephen became a follower of Jesus and converted to Christianity. Being appointed by Saint Peter, Stephen served as one of the seven original deacons of the early Christian Church. They were ordained by the Apostles to care for ‘widows and the poor’.
Saint Stephen worked many miracles through the power of God, which drew much attention to him. He was also a very successful preacher with an absolute devotion to Christ and many people who heard him immediately became converted to Christianity.
It has been recorded that Saint Stephen had angelic features. His good work also drew attention from those who felt he was a danger to their way of life and there were many people who disliked him because of his beliefs. Nevertheless, he faced his enemies without fear. During one of his speeches in Jerusalem in A.D. 35, an angry crowd began shouting abuse at him. He looked up towards the sky and said he saw the Heavens open and could see Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
This angered of the crowd to such a degree that they dragged him outside the walls of the old city where they stoned him to death. As he lay dying, he begged God to have mercy on them and not to punish his killers. One of the men who persecuted him during his preaching was Saul, who later became Saint Paul. Because of the manner in which he died, Saint Stephen is now recognised as the Patron Saint of Stonemasons.
The exact origin of ‘Boxing Day’ is rather obscure, but the tradition could possibly date from the Middle Ages in Britain. During the medieval sailing days, sailors setting off on voyages of trade or discovery would have a ‘Christmas Box’ placed on a ship by a priest as an item of good luck. The sailors would put money into the box to ensure a safe journey. The box was then sealed shut and kept on board throughout the entire voyage, eventually returning to the home port with the box unopened. Upon making landfall, the sailors would hand the box over to the priest in exchange for Masses celebrated in thanksgiving for their safe voyage. The box remained sealed until Christmas, when it was opened and its contents distributed among the poor.
Other people believe that Boxing Day originated with servants, who had to work on Christmas Day, but were given the following day off. As the servants were leaving to visit their family homes, their employers would present them with ‘Gift Boxes’ containing essential and novelty items to take with them. This was an exciting time for the families, as they eagerly opened the box to view the contents. Thus, the name Boxing Day evolved.
Another tradition indicates that gift items were given to people on 26 December, who had provided services during the previous year, such as tradesmen, mail carriers, doormen, porters and many others. These traditions were eventually absorbed into Christmas rather than Boxing Day. Another theory is that the clergy would place ‘Alms Boxes’ in the churches prior to Christmas where parishioners deposited coins for the poor. On St Stephen’s Day the boxes were opened and again the contents distributed among the poor.
However, the story of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ is perhaps one of the best and most noted tales associated with the idea of gift boxes being given on 26 December. Wenceslas was Duke of Bohemia during the early tenth century. According to the Christmas carol, while surveying his land on St Stephen’s Day, he saw a poor man gathering wood in the middle of a snowstorm. Being moved with pity for the man, Wenceslas immediately gathered up surplus food and wine and carried them back through the blizzard to the peasant’s house and gave the gifts to the surprised, but delighted man.
St Stephen’s Day in Ireland was sometimes referred to as ‘Wren Day’. Going around with the ‘Wren’ on St Stephen’s Day was extremely popular for generations of people in the city as well as the county. This is a very old tradition and has its origins in ancient Rome, where it is reputed that the Wren once betrayed the hiding place of Saint Stephen to the Romans. During the nineteenth and twentieth century in Ireland, people went ‘Hunting for the Wren’. In some areas the Wren was killed and hung from a holly bush, and then brought around from house to house. However, the bird was normally placed in a cage and brought from around door to door by the groups of ‘mummers’ as they played music and sang. The mummers would normally dress-up in home-made costumes. Their reward was normally a shilling or a few pence collected at each household.
Tom Small from Kiloughter remembers those long gone days when they would leave early in the morning, in a bid to be first in each locality. The earliest group on the road were usually the best rewarded. It was a hugely popular tradition and there was much competition between the various groups. However, as time passed, the tradition began to die out. This is indicated in a report from South Galway in January 1952, which stated: ‘St Stephen’s Day showed that the old custom of “mumming” is fast disappearing. Very few “wren boys” were in evidence and the omission robbed the day somewhat of its character’. Nevertheless, the custom continued to be observed in the city, mainly by teenage groups.
The youngsters in the town often found it difficult to catch a wren, so they made do with any bird unfortunate enough to be caught by them. They would set a trap in a quiet area of the town, mainly at the backs of houses. It normally consisted of a box turned upside down with the flaps cut off. It was propped on one side with a stick and breadcrumbs were placed in a line leading to a fine feed placed under the box.
A long piece of string was attached to the stick and the youngsters would then lie in wait in a well concealed position to watch the bird ‘take the bait’. Once the bird went under the box and was busy feeding, the string was pulled swiftly, the box dropped down and the bird was trapped. A wire cage was then commandeered and it became the bird’s home for at least one day.
Most of ‘Wren Day’ was spent knocking on doors and reciting a poem or song associated with the season. This tradition continued for generations, but sadly by the 1960s it was beginning to die out in the town. The following is a rhyme that the youngsters recite at the door of each house.
The Wren, the Wren, the king of all birds,
St Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Up with the kittle, and down with the pan,
Please give us a penny to bury the Wren,
If you haven’t got a penny, a half penny will do,
If you haven’t got a half penny, then God bless you.