The Many Holidays of December 26th

It's December 26th! Go kill a wren! No...not really.

I hope everyone is enjoying a wonderful holiday season. We had a splendid Christmas yesterday. And now today we have December the 26th…the second day of Christmas, the seventh day of Hannukah, the first day of Kwanzaa, and, as it turns out, a whole host of additional holidays. Popular day, December 26th.

Here are a few of what I find to be some of the more interesting holidays that are (or were) celebrated today:

Boxing Day: Is actually something that my family celebrates today. And we’re not Canadian. It just became too difficult to fit in so many visits on Christmas Day, so my parents host Boxing Day, a “second Christmas” of sorts and a relaxing day on which our extended family gathers. Historically, the day after Christmas was known as Boxing Day in England due to the fact that well-off families would box up gifts and sometimes left-overs from the Christmas feast for their servants. “Christmas Boxes” were also set out at various churches for the collection of items for the needy. An official holiday in the United Kingdom, Canada and other Commonwealth countries, in England it’s apparently a big day for sports and hunting. Though not necessarily actual boxing, which is what I thought when I was a kid.

St. Stephen’s Day: In the years immediately following the death of Jesus, the Apostles struggled to grow their following and strengthen their offshoot religion. This in the face of adversity from the Pharisees, the ruling class of Jews in Jerusalem. The Apostles ordained seven deacons to help organize their followers and to oversee the distribution of food (the Christian church held their belongings in common at that time and honest men were needed to see that the distribution of possessions was equitable). Stephen was one of these first deacons and quickly rose to a strong position of leadership. He was said to be a gifted speaker, energetically preaching and winning converts. He debated matters of religion hotly…perhaps too hotly. In one synagogue, around the year 35 A.D., he managed to offend a large number of people, either because he embarrassed them in debate, or because he was misunderstood, or possibly he just went too far. He was accused of speaking blasphemous words against Moses, and brought before the Sanhedrin (or Jewish supreme council) for trial. Despite eloquently arguing in his own defense, he was found guilty, dragged outside the city, and stoned to death near Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, becoming the christian church’s first martyr.

From this sad story, we eventually end up with a happy holiday and St. Stephen being designated the patron saint of stonemasons and headaches (a little irony there?). During the Middle Ages, the Feast of St. Stephen on December 26th became wrapped up in traditions of charity and giving, in honor of the first christian martyr. This is most famously embodied by the modern carol “Good King Wenceslas” (written by Anglican priest John Mason Neale in 1853 and set to a medieval tune). Wenceslas was an actual king who ruled in 10th century Bohemia (now a large part of the Czech Republic). As we’ve all heard, Wenceslas, in the carol, takes pity on a poor man and ventures out into the cold to help him…this in the spirit of St. Stephen.

Mummer’s Day: The tradition of Mummer’s Plays goes back centuries in England. Troops of actors and dancers would travel about over the course of the year and perform plays based on folk tales and biblical passages. By and by, the plays increasingly became associated with the Christmas season and New Years Day. More recently, in Cornwall, December 26 was fixed by various towns as Mummer’s Day. There is, unfortunately, some odd controversy about the holiday in that one of the traditions involves dancers disguising themselves, usually by blackening their faces. Nowadays, that smacks too much of American minstrel black-face for some. Strange how completely unrelated traditions, some good, some bad, converge, conflict and transform.

Wren Day: This Irish holiday I have recently learned about, and to me is perhaps the most intriguing of the many holidays of December the 26th. In Irish it is “Lá an Dreoilín,” literally, “the Day of the Wren.” In short, there is a strong tradition in Ireland of really hating wrens. Since the middle ages, they have been a symbol of mischief and bad luck. There is a story, told in many variations, of a force of Irish soldiers being betrayed by a flock of wrens who descended on the soldiers and beat their wings against the Irish shields, revealing their location to their enemies (who were either Vikings or Cromwellians depending on the story). This resulted in the annihilation of the Irish force. In retribution against the feathered creatures, St. Stephen’s Day somehow became the annual day for hunting wrens. The dead birds were then carried through town by “wren boys” wearing disguises (often of wicker) and singing and dancing (similar to the Mummer’s tradition). The wren boys would seek treats and gifts at various houses with their dead birds (a bizarre variant on caroling) and, if satisfied with their gift would present their patron with a wren feather for good luck. If dissatisfied, they would leave a dead wren on the doorstep, bringing bad luck upon the household.

This peculiar holiday died out almost completely but is still carried out with gusto in County Kerry, Ireland. Although with caged, live wrens who, I am given to understand, are not harmed. The annual festival is apparently a cherished tradition and might just spread beyond Kerry to other parts of Ireland.

This past summer, there was a wren who would almost daily perch near our bedroom window and sing before dawn louder than any alarm clock. I don’t know if Irish wrens are that loud, but if so, that is more likely the reason for such enthusiastic wren hunting than any matter involving shields and Vikings!

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, sometimes Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

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