Many of us recognise 26 December as a holiday. But how much do you really know about the history of St Stephen’s Day in Ireland?
Comparable to North America’s Black Friday, St Stephen’s Day is an occasion reserved for nabbing the sales’ best bargains and sharing Christmas stories with your friends in the pub.
However, this day also reveals a rich history. St Stephen’s Day has been celebrated in Ireland for hundreds of years in honour of the Christian martyr, St Stephen.
What’s more, this day revolves around a series of legends that vary in detail, yet they all have one thing in common.
Each of them tells the story of the wren bird and what it symbolises to Irish people past and present.
The wren – a symbol of celebration
St Stephen’s Day in Ireland is also referred to as ‘Wren Day’ or ‘The Day of the Wren’. For those who don’t know, a wren is a small brown bird widely associated with spring and rebirth.
This positive depiction of the creature rings true in one of many Irish legends where the wren takes centre stage.
Legend has it that years ago, in a village in Ireland, a plot had been formed against a group of sleeping soldiers.
The soldiers were about to be attacked when a flock of wrens pecked on their drums to awaken them.
The soldiers were saved, and from then on, the wren became a symbol of celebration. This could be where the tradition of ‘going on the wren’ came from.
‘Going on the Wren’ – like ‘trick or treating’ but at Christmas time
In Ireland’s countryside, ‘going on the wren’ was an activity whereby ‘wren boys’ (participants) would put on old clothes and paint their faces.
The wren boys would then carry a toy bird from door to door and perform for their neighbours in exchange for money. Traditionally, wren boys sang a verse from The Wren Song:
‘The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little, his honour was great,
Jump up me lads, and give us a treat.’
The custom of ‘going on the wren’ is not common anymore but is still carried out in rural areas of Kerry, Limerick, Galway, and elsewhere.
Interestingly, the city folk or ‘townies’ of Ireland wouldn’t have grown up with this tradition while many of Ireland’s ‘culchies’ (people from the countryside) remember it fondly.
The burial of the wren – another take on the history of St Stephen’s Day in Ireland
The origins of Wren Day have also been associated with the story of a wren’s burial. As the story goes, two young boys were out walking when they spotted a dead bird on the side of the road.
They scooped the bird up into a box and preceded to go from house to house with it, offering performances in exchange for money.
Their goal was to raise enough money to give the bird a proper funeral. This version of the holiday’s origins has been linked to The Wren Song’s chorus:
‘Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren’
The betrayal of St Stephen – a sinister story
Although the legends mentioned above are positive and innocent, the history of St Stephen’s Day in Ireland boasts its fair share of sinister stories.
For some, the wren symbolises spring and celebration, while for others, the wren stands for bad luck and betrayal.
Locals claim that when the noble St Stephen was in hiding, a wren bird caused a nearby commotion, which then revealed the saint’s location to those who wished him harm.
Years ago in Ireland, people would hunt wren birds and attach their corpses to a pole. They would then dress up as wren boys, leading a procession through town as a sign of respect for St Stephen.
Luckily, this tradition is a thing of the past. A parade will still take place in some parts of the country but with a toy bird on the pole instead of a real one.
Wren Day – what to expect in Ireland this December
The history of St Stephen’s Day in Ireland differs depending on the storyteller.
Nowadays, Wren Day traditions are rare. This year, you can expect to go bargain hunting and to wear your favourite Christmas jumper to the pub.
To us, that’s a typical St Stephen’s Day spent in Ireland.