December 26th has always been a problem. What is to be done with a day that is so anti-climatic? Nineteenth century England had boxing day, as David Copperfield, a character created by Dickens and appearing in Jane Eyre Gets Real by Annabelle Troy, well remembers. Servants, who had to work on Christmas, were given a box full of food, some money, perhaps castoff clothing from their employers, and allowed to take the day off to visit their families. Though still a legal holiday in the UK, it hardly packs the same punch now.
Throughout Europe, especially Ireland, Dec. 26th is also celebrated as St. Stephen’s Day or Wren Day. St. Stephen was Christianity’s first martyr. All over Ireland, especially in rural communities, people–okay, usually boys and men–don old clothes, wear straw hats or straw capes, and go from door to door singing and carrying a fake wren on a pole. In past times, a real wren used to be hunted and killed before it was impaled. Why this association with Stephen and wrens? No one seems to be sure but it has to do with ancient folk legends–probably of pagan origin– featuring the wren and Jesus. Because mumming is also part of St. Stephen’s Day it’s the traditional day to see pantomime in theaters–think Stephen Fry’s Cinderella with men dressed up as Ugly Stepsisters, Dolce and Gabbana.
In Finland, where Christmas itself was celebrated austerely, a big part of the St. Stephen’s Day tradition was to go out on a horse and sleigh, bells jangling. Could this be why Santa rides a reindeer? Whatever the answer, Wren Day tries not to disappoint.