Lá an Dreolín atá ann in Éireann inniú – Today is St Stephen’s Day in Ireland, when the Wren Boys will be out honouring the ‘King of all Birds’.
The tradition consists of “hunting” a fake wren and putting it on top of a decorated pole. Then the crowds of mummers, or strawboys, celebrate the wren by dressing up in masks, straw suits, and colourful motley clothing. They form music bands and parade through towns and villages. These crowds are sometimes called wrenboys.
“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze….Up with the kettle and down with the pan, And give us a penny to bury the wren.”
Irish people and their folklore placed great importance on birds and that tradition continues. Legend has it that a wren betrayed the position of Irish soldiers as they prepared to attack the Vikings (history shows that didn’t end terribly well for us).
Wren Boys, Athea, Co. #Limerick by Kevin Danaher, 1947. #WestLimerick #StStephensDay “The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze….Up with the kettle and down with the pan, And give us a penny to bury the wren.” pic.twitter.com/YheHv2gPeI
— West Limerick Past (@WestLimHeritage) December 26, 2019
In Ireland the second day of Christmas is always referred to as St. Stephen’s Day (as in the Feast of Stephen referenced in the Carol “Good King Wenceslas”) and not Boxing Day as in Britain. “Good King Wenceslas” was actually a Duke during his lifetime. After his assassination at age 27 by his younger brother, Wenceslas the Duke, was posthumously declared a King by the Pope as well as a saint, and the Duchy of Bohemia became the Kingdom of Bohemia, with Kings in charge ever after. Today, of course, most of Bohemia lies within the borders of the Czech Republic, also called Czechia, and St. Wenceslas is the patron saint of the Czechs, hence Wenceslas Square in Prague the site pf the “Velvet Revolution” the non-violent transition of power in what was then Czechoslovakia, occurring from 17 November to 29 December 1989.
“But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.” – Cosmas of Prague, about the reign of Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia, a.k.a. Good King Wenceslas.
Other people may visit a theatre to see a pantomime. Pantomimes are musical-comedy productions based on fairy tales and aimed at families. They incorporate audience participation, cross-dressing, double entendre and references to recent local events. In some parts of Ireland, children go from door to door with a wren (a small bird) in a cage or a model wren on a stick. They may also sing, play music or perform traditional dances. In some areas, boys may dress as girls or women. Many hope to collect money for community or school projects or charity.
An old Irish tradition for the 26th of December (St Stephen's Day) – the Wren Boys, shown here in Dingle Co Kerry. pic.twitter.com/U03SDQFxXc
— National Library of Ireland (@NLIreland) December 26, 2019
St Stephen is believed to be the first Christian martyr. He was stoned to death sometime around the year 33 CE. According to an Irish legend, he was betrayed by a wren while hiding from his enemies. Another legend tells of Viking raids on Ireland on St Stephen’s Day sometime around the year 750 CE. Irish soldiers were approaching a Viking camp to drive out the intruders. However, a wren started eating crumbs from a drum and alerted the Vikings to the presence of the Irish soldiers.
— Irish Archaeology (@irarchaeology) December 26, 2019
Hence, some people felt that wrens betrayed them and should be stoned to death, just as St Stephen was. Boys traditionally hunted a wren and threw stones at it. They tied it to a stick when it was dead and paraded it around the village. They did this to collect money for a dance or party for the whole village. Although the custom of killing wrens on December 26 died out around 1900, St Stephen’s Day is still known as the Day of the Wren, particularly in rural areas. St Stephen’s Day has been a holiday in Ireland for hundreds of years. It became a public holiday following the Bank Holidays Act 1871.
The Stoning of Saint Stephen is the first signed painting by Dutch artist Rembrandt, painted in 1625 at the age of 19. It is currently kept in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon. This work is inspired by the martyrdom of Saint Stephen which is recounted in Acts 7.