Stephen’s.

If you are Irish, have been around the Irish, or visited Ireland over Christmas then that one word says it all. If you haven’t had the pleasure of an Irish culture education, forced or otherwise, then let me explain.

St. Stephen’s Day is the day after Christmas. At one time it was also known as Wren Day. This older name, and the associated customs, are of particular interest to me because of my love of myth and folklore.

In Ireland, St. Stephen’s Day is the day for “Hunting the Wren” or “Going on the Wren.” Originally, groups of boys would hunt for a wren; chasing the poor bird until they either caught it or it died from exhaustion. The dead bird was then tied to the top of a pole or holly bush, which was decorated with ribbons or colored paper.

Early in the morning of St. Stephen’s Day, the wren was carried from house to house by the boys, who wore straw masks, straw suits, or blackened their faces with burnt cork, and were dressed in old clothes. At each house, the boys sang, danced, and asked for money or a treat in exchange for a wren’s feather (for luck). In some locals the wrenboys were proper mummers, with skits and costumes. A party was thrown later in the evening with the money collected on their travels.

There are several explanations as to why the wren, of all birds, was used in this ritual. One story has the little bird (or a flock of them) alerting Cromwell (or the vikings) of an impending Irish attack by alighting on a drum (or shields) and fluttering its wings. Another story says the wren betrayed St. Stephen (the first Christian martyr) by flapping its wings to attract his pursuers. Yet another story associates the wren with ancient Druidic ritual and augury, citing a derivative name: dreoilín (Irish word for wren) and draoi ean (Irish, meaning druid bird).

The most intriguing story, however, involves Clíona, a woman of the Otherworld. It is said she would entice young men to follow her to the ocean where they drowned. A charm was eventually found to protect against her wiles, but she could escape by turning into a wren. As a punishment she was forced to take the shape of a wren on every succeeding Christmas day and doomed to die at the hands of men. (Wrenboys in Ireland)
(Wrens Day)

In modern Ireland very few places still practice the ancient custom of hunting the wren in order to “collect a few bob” and throw a little party, though a village near us still sees children running door to door with their little cans to collect money and candy. In these days the sight most often seen on Stephen’s is hordes of adults drunken and disorderly in public!

You see the pubs are closed ALL DAY on Christmas, and close early on Christmas Eve! The population, parched and in fear the pubs will never open their doors again, impatiently await Stephen’s, when the beer and whiskey will freely flow!

Actually, the general party atmosphere is probably the carry-over from the ancient practice of holding a dance with the money raised by the Wrenboys. Still…it’s an experience and if you are looking for a “Party” you should come to Ireland for Stephen’s!

This Stephen’s day I began the trek from Cork to Donegal, with a stop-over for the nights festivities in Monaghan. Himself has a childhood friend who lives there with his wife and children and we spent the evening in their cozy kitchen, drinking way too much, talking and laughing at their kids antics. While nobody knocked at the door to sing or dance, and we didn’t come away with a wren’s feather, I think the luck of the day was to be found in good friends who gathered in joy and mirth.

Oh…and in typical Irish fashion, the phrase of the day after, as my head pound and my stomach churned, “Never …. again! Never again!”

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