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An Irish Christmas - St. Stephen's to New Year's Eve
by Bridget Haggerty
When I was a little girl, the day after Christmas was almost as much fun as the day itself. It was, and still is, a national holiday in Great Britain and Ireland, which makes a great deal of sense to me; adults get a day off to relax (or recuperate!), kids can look forward to going to the pantomime, and best of all, there's still that magical feeling of good cheer in the air.
Here, in the U.S., I can't get used to the abrupt end to a season that should have only just begun. Most people are back at work; there are no more carols on the radio, and even a few trees, some with branches still tinseled, can be seen cast out on the sidewalk. True, there's New Year's Eve to look forward to - but it's not the same as Christmas. New Year's just happens to fall in the middle of the season; sadly, in this hurry up, hustle and bustle world, we seem to have forgotten that. Wistfully, I recall it wasn't always so.
Imagine nearly two weeks, when all but the basic, most necessary chores were set aside; when family was reunited; when the hospitality of the house was open to all; and when friends and neighbors gathered around your fireside for long evenings of story telling, music and reminiscing. If you were in Ireland, long ago, that's what you could expect during the 12 days of Christmas, from the Nativity to Epiphany. Back then, Christmas Day was a family celebration and it was seldom that friends and neighbors would intrude. But, the next day was very different.
In the north of Ireland, December 26th was celebrated as Boxing Day, which originated from the time when it was traditional for the lord of the manor to give gifts to servants, tradespeople and tenants. In the Republic, the day was altogether something else!
There, it was the feast of St. Stephen or Wren Day. At one time, groups of small boys would hunt for a wren, and then chase the poor bird until they either caught it or it died from exhaustion. It was then tied to the top of a pole or holly bush, which was decorated with ribbons or colored paper. Early in the morning on St. Stephen's, the wren was carried from house to house by the boys, who wore straw masks or blackened their faces with burnt cork, and dressed in old clothes. At each house, the boys sang the Wren Boys' song. There are many versions and variations, including the following:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
Although he is little, his family is great,
I pray you, good lady, give us a treat.
My box would speak, if it had but a tongue,
And two or three shillings, would do it no wrong,
Sing holly, sing ivy - sing ivy, sing holly,
A drop just to drink, it would drown melancholy.
And if you draw it of the best,
I hope in heaven your soul will rest;
But if you draw it of the small,
It won't agree with these wren boys at all.
Often, those who gave money were given a feather from the wren for good luck and then the money that had been collected was used to hold a dance for the entire village.
There are different legends about the origin of this custom. One is that St. Stephen, hiding from his enemies in a bush, was betrayed by a chattering wren. From that point on, the wren, like St. Stephen, should be hunted down and stoned to death. The pursuit and capture of the wren is also related to the pagan custom of sacrificing a sacred symbol at year's end. In contrast to the legends of the wren as betrayer, the wren was also revered in Ireland as the "king of all birds." An Irish folk tale tells of a contest held among birds to see which could fly the highest and should be given the title. The eagle soared higher than any other bird, but lost the contest when a clever wren hid on the back of the eagle, then flew off and soared higher in the sky.
Wren Day fell into disfavor around the turn of the century and died out completely in most parts of Ireland. However, just recently it has seen a widespread revival, but with some marked differences. Mercifully, wrens are no longer hunted and killed - today, an artificial one is used; the "Wren Boys" now include girls, and adults often accompany the young people. Folk costumes and traditional music and dancing are often part of the festivities, and the money collected is sometimes used for community or school projects.
As a child, I never knew about Wren Day. My parents never mentioned it, and it's probably because the custom had already disappeared when they were growing up. Because we were in London, we celebrated Boxing Day! For breakfast, we always had a traditional Irish fry-up, including my dad's feather-light potato pancakes - if he felt up to it! Then, for a few hours, while our parents read the newspaper, we played with our new toys and games. I can remember Snakes & Ladders, Snap, and a Mechano set one of my brothers got which allowed us to build the strangest contraptions! Then, after a light lunch, it was time for the panto! We'd get all dressed up again in our new Christmas outfits and head off with mum to the Wimbledon Theatre and several hours of child heaven. Dad had his heaven too - meeting his mates at the local, and then making the rounds until tea-time.
My own children have never seen a panto and I daresay if you asked an American child what it is, they wouldn't have the foggiest idea. And that's a shame. Today, kids all over Great Britain, and also in the Republic of Ireland, look forward to this annual treat on the second day of Christmas. Far from being a silent show as the name might imply, in my memory, it was a rollicking, slapstick performance loosely based on classic fairy tales such as Babes in the Woods, Cinderella or Puss 'n Boots. With very few exceptions, men played women's parts and vice versa and there was always great interaction with the audience. Usually, one of the performers adopted the role of cheerleader and would alert us when the villain was about to come on stage. With screams, hisses and boohs, we greeted his or her arrival. By contrast, when the hero and heroine appeared, we almost lifted the roof with cheers and applause. When it was over, we'd hurry home, exhausted but happy; mum would make tea, and Dad never failed to show up - a little tipsy maybe, but always in a cheerful mood. So cheerful that he didn't mind us competing with one another to tell him all about our afternoon. What a wonderful time it was.
The third day of Christmas - the Feast of St. John the Apostle - my mother would have attended Mass; but what was so unusual about that? As devout as she was, she went to Mass every day. What was unusual about it, was that she'd come home and begin a marathon cleaning and stocking up for New Year's Eve. To this day, I follow her routine, because according to her, the condition of your house and home on the last day of the year was how it would be for the following 12 months. Beds were stripped, brass was polished, drawers and closets were cleaned out, and the larder was restocked. My dad would be totally relieved that he had to go back to work!
My parents were both Irish, but I don't remember them telling us anything about St. John or special customs associated with his feast day. Since then, I've learned of a delightful tradition, but I'm not sure to which culture it belongs. St. John is remembered for the miracle of drinking a cup of poisoned wine without harm. On his feast day, wine is blessed with holy water and the sign of the cross, then sugar and water is added to make a punch. This is poured into the best wine goblets. At the supper table, the father begins the toast, touching his goblet to the mother's, saying "I drink you the love of St. John." In turn, she touches the goblets of each of the children and they follow suit all around the table.
December 28th - Holy Innocents Day; this day is regarded as very ill-omened because it commemorates the slaughter of the baby boys by King Herod. Known as La Crosta na Bliana 'the cross day of the year', Irish superstition says that it is very unlucky to plan or begin any new work or enterprise. If work needed to be started, bad luck could be avoided if it was begun before midnight on the 27th - the reason I'm convinced my mother commenced her New Year's preparations on St. Johns! Also known as Childermas, it was widely believed that whatever day of the week on which it fell, that day would also be unlucky in the following year.
New Year's Eve - and the house is spotless. Fresh linens are on each bed. And, even in lean years, my mother has managed to make certain there's food in the larder and coal in the cellar. This afternoon, we will skip tea, because a large supper is planned for tonight - this was to ensure plenty for the coming year. Best of all, we will be allowed to stay up until the stroke of midnight. Dad will pour us all a little drop of port in readiness for the toast. As the radio alerts us to the chimes of Big Ben on the radio, my brother, who is tall for his age and has black hair, is given a lump of coal and sent out the back door. He goes around to the front and we let him in - our lucky 'first foot!' With that, Dad draws from his Galway roots and proposes the following:
May your nets always be full,
Your pockets never empty,
Your horse not cast a shoe,
Nor the devil look at you
In the coming year.
We clink glasses, hug, kiss, and wish each other all the best.
Image: Wren from All posters. They have many other Christmas posters & Prints. While you're there look around.
Thu, Dec 7, 2017
Holly and Ivy hanging up and
something wet in every cup*
Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
*Old Irish Christmas toast
Image: Pashley Manor Gardens.
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