Monday, December 26, 2011

Killing Wrens, Racing Horses for Ale

St. Stephen's Day is an important feast in the liturgical calendar and is associated with a great deal of customs from various places.  Perhaps most well known is Boxing Day (British).  As a child I always used to imagine that this was a day on which people would simply slug each other. Although, incidentally,  it used to be that people would strike each other with holly branches throughout the day, in actual fact, Boxing Day is a time of almsgiving on which one would give boxes of money, gifts or food to servants or the less fortunate.  This is commemorated in the story of Good King Wenceslas, who travels with his servant through the cold and snow to give alms to a peasant family.

This story is told in the famous carol "Good King Wenceslas" which it is customary to sing on this day: 

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing 

It was a commonplace tradition to go hunting on St. Stephen's Day.  The most popular game animal was the wren (although fox hunting was also common) who was believed to be guilty of betraying St. Stephen and also represented the old year.  Whole families would go out to picnic during the hunt, bringing with them the makings for a great feast from Christmas leftovers.  The wren would later be processed through the villages on a pole and the hunters would go from door to door requesting funds for a proper funeral.

In many areas of Europe, Stephen is associated with horses.  For this reason it was always customary, especially in Eastern and Northern Europe to engage in horse racing.  Similarly, bands of men, calling themselves St. Stephen's Men, gallop through the villages singing about St. Stephen.  In return, the villagers would supply them with a breakfast of ale.  St. Stephen's Day bread would also be baked, in the shape of a horseshoe and filled with jam or a poppyseed sauce.


  1. 2 comments:

    First, I was unaware of the tradition of hunting on the Feast of Stephen--yet my first hunting trip took place on Dec. 26 a few years back in the company of a number of good Catholic men.

    Secondly, while opening a number of cheap, made-in-China "Holiday poppers" this past 12/26, my son got a little slip of paper with the following joke:

    Q: How does good King Wenceslas like his pizza?
    A: Deep pan--crisp and even

  2. Denys,

    Yes, God truly works in mysterious ways.

  3. I have never seen the whole version of this Christmas carol and I thoroughly enjoyed it and your post. For several years now my family has been celebrating the feast days of saints during Advent and St. Stephen's, too. I have discovered that to do so is in no way a detraction from Christmas, but a way of enriching the present. Hopefully, my kids will make the connection one day that Christ's presence in the world has formed and shaped the culture of the past.