I look forward to the Christmas holidays more than anyone I’ve ever known. In addition to the main events, my birthday falls smack dab in the middle between Christmas and the New Year. All my life I’ve heard people say, “Oh you poor dear.” Even when I was a child, I thought those naysayers were clueless, because while most children get only one 24-hour period to enjoy their birthdays, mine occurred during the no-school-for-two-weeks biggest celebration season of the year.
In our house, those weeks ushered in a parade of special events and special food. On Christmas Eve we went to my Aunt Matilda’s home for her traditional Italian Feast of Seven Fishes. The following afternoon, everyone came to our house for Christmas turkey and all the trimmings. Two days later, it was my birthday and both my mother and my aunt made my favorite cakes. Three days after that, I was allowed to join the adult cocktails ‘n tidbits party and stay up until midnight to greet the New Year. Then on January 1, the whole family came to our house again to eat traditional foods that would bring everyone luck in the New Year.
Already, that’s more celebrating — and eating — than most American families experience, but on top of everything else, thanks to my Dad’s Irish roots, December 26 was a special time on our celebration calendar as well. Some call it The Wren’s Day. Some call it St. Stephen’s Day. Some call it Boxing Day. Any one of the titles is appropriate, for the event has a checkered history that began in the time of the pre-Christian Celtic Druids and picked up customs as it traveled through the centuries.
The tale starts with the wren. In Gaelic, the wren is called Staid Eoin or Druid’s bird. Since this little warbler could just as easily soar to great heights as flutter about unseen in the underbrush, it symbolized divinity, wisdom, and cunning. It nested in lightning-proof oak trees, and anyone who disturbed a wren’s nest ran the risk of having his own home struck and destroyed by a shaft of celestial wattage. The bird’s diet of insects helped keep crops safe, and hearing its song was considered a good omen. For most of the year, it was considered extreme bad luck to harass humanity’s little feathered friend in any way whatsoever.
Way back in prehistory, midwinter was a time fraught with fear. The days were short, and it was the darkest time of the year. As such it called for making some great sacrifice to convince the sun to linger longer in the sky. Since the wren occupied such a key totemic niche in the critter world, a Druid priest would trap and slay one of the little birds, place its body atop a pole adorned with holly, the Druids’ sacred bush that bears fruit in the midst of winter’s chill, and parade the offering about the settlement with great ritual and ceremony. The idea was that the wren’s innocent spirit would carry the Druids’ plea for safe passage through the winter months to the gods.
When Christianity arrived on the island, the Church no more favored the ceremony of the wren than any other of the Druidic beliefs. The people were not, however, willing to turn their back on a ritual that had ostensibly done a good job of staving off winter perils for eons. Just as it had tried to replace Samhain with All Hallows, Imbolc with St. Brigid, and Beltaine with Easter, Rome declared that the day following Christmas would be dedicated to the memory of the Church’s first martyr, St. Stephen. To combat the Druidic wren’s association with divinity and peaceful benevolence, the hapless bird was denounced as the agent whose chirping revealed St. Stephen to the authorities and brought about the good man’s execution by stoning.
In Ireland, Wren Day and St. Stephen’s Day merged in a way that boded ill for the unfortunate wren. Groups of boys would go out hunting for a wren that they stoned to death, after which they hung the bird’s body by its leg in a circle of thin branches and hoisted it atop a long pole. Then dressed head to toe in costumes made from straw, they paraded their victim from house to house begging for food and alms chanting “Up Sraid Eoin!” and singing “The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze; Although he is little, his family’s great, I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat!”
These days, the violent nature of `wrenning’ has in most places given way to a more humane practice of parading with a stuffed toy wren or photocopied image of the bird, sometimes mounted on a pole and sometimes carried in a little decorated coffin box. More environmentally conscious households build wren houses and place them outdoors, inviting the ancient sacred warbler to come live in their gardens and protect their vegetable plots by feasting on all the insects it can find.
By the Middle Ages, the day after Christmas was more commonly celebrated as St. Stephen’s Day rather than Wren Day and had evolved into a time for persons of higher social status to distribute some of their excess to persons of lower status. This charitable practice took several forms. Christmas was a time when everyone on a landed estate gathered together to celebrate. Before those who lived off the manor premises returned home, the landowner would distribute supplies needed for the future such as tools, seeds, lengths of fabric, and perhaps some cast-off clothing that the serfs and servants carted away in boxes. Merchants too bestowed gifts — sometimes even a small sum of money — to their workers and suppliers on that day, again in boxes. A direct correlation is the modern custom of annually `tipping’ service people such as mail carriers at Christmas time. Similarly, a church’s `Poor Box’ into which people had donated money all year was opened on December 26th and the contents distributed to the poor. In all cases, the gifts had some correlation to `boxes.’
In 1853, the Victorian clergyman Dr. John Neale wrote a Christmas carol entitled Good King Wenceslaus. In the first verse we hear that King Wenceslaus looked out of his window on the Feast of St. Stephen and spotted a poor man gathering winter fuel. Later in the song, the king himself gives the man food, drink, and firewood. The carol forever embedded the concept of caring for the less fortunate at the holiday season in popular culture.
When I was a child, my family celebrated December 26 by boxing up canned goods, plus clothing and household items we no longer had uses for, and carting our donations to agencies that distributed food and clothing to the poor. When we returned home we enjoyed a traditional Irish Cream Tea of scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream plus copious cups of fragrant steeped tea with sugar and cream. When my daughter was a child, I added two more customs to the day. To honor the wren, we set out winter treats for the birds, and with a modern spin on Boxing Day we honored the environment by breaking up all the Christmas gift boxes and hauling them off to a recycling center. If you do not already celebrate December 26, I encourage you to embrace our family traditions. Slainte!
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
4 tablespoons butter, cold
3/4-1 cup milk
Preheat oven to 425°F. Lightly grease a baking sheet. Combine flour, salt and baking powder. Cut in the cold butter until the mixture is the size of peas. Add the milk a little at a time until the dough holds together. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out until it is about 1-2 inches thick, trying not to press hard with the rolling pin as rough handling will prevent the dough from rising. Shape the dough into a square, cut into 2×2-inch pieces, and place on a baking sheet. Bake about 12-18 minutes. Best served warm. Makes 6-8 scones.
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
1/2 cup commercial sour cream
In a medium bowl, beat cream until foamy. Add powdered sugar and continue beating until the cream forms thick soft peaks. Fold in sour cream. Refrigerate until needed. Makes 1 cup.
A TREAT FOR THE BIRDS
Tie a long length of garden twine to one end of each pinecone. Spread peanut butter on the pinecones, then roll them around in the wildbird seed until the surface is well covered. Hang the pinecones from a tree branch or laundry line high enough off the ground so the birds that come to feed will not be threatened by roaming cats. ♦