Good King Wenceslas and the Feast of St. Stephen

Happy St. Stephen’s Day!  St. Stephen was one of the Catholic Church’s earliest martyrs, and his day is mentioned in one of my least favorite Christmas carols, “Good King Wenceslas.” ( Jeremy described one of the St. Stephen’s Day traditions, the hunting of the wren, in his March 13, 2012 post. Check it out here.)

weneslas1Last night, I listened to the Stuff You Missed in History Class episode that describes the historical figures of “Good” King Wenceslas and St. Stephen. After listening, I have renewed respect for the figure in the carol, and, after reading all of the lyrics (as opposed to the first verse that we all have memorized), it’s a lovely story of good deeds–whether true or not.   Seems that the pictures we see of King Wenceslas are more imagination than reality. (The illustration to the right is the typical depiction–more like St. Nick.) The 10th century Bohemian prince, who wasn’t a king at all, was a young man when he was murdered by his brother, Boleslav the Cruel.

I’m a big fan of the podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class.  In this podcast, co-hosts Deblina Chakraborty and Sarah Dowdey discuss both historical figures and give insight into their good deeds.    They reference of the stanzas of the carol,

In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed

As Wenceslas and his page walk forth to take a meal and firewood to a peasant, the king’s very goodness melts the snow beneath his feet.

In the podcast, Chakraborty mentions that she edited another How Stuff Works blog post, “10 Myths About Christmas.”  It gave me the idea for a future blog post to research the history of the glass pickle.  Jeremy gave me one for Christmas, and now I want to know more!

The Hunting of the Wrens

There are many unique holiday celebrations around the world.  The Hunting of the Wrens and the Wren Boy Procession in Ireland is most definitely unique.  The celebrations are held on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th, each year.  In ancient times the young boys in the village would hunt down a wren, kill it, and hang it on a holly bush that was then paraded through the town.  The townspeople would dress in hay costumes and follow the procession through town.  Feathers from the dead wren were sold to villagers for a penny and all the money was used to hold a dance for the town.  Today the celebration has changed.  The boys now search for a hidden fake wren.  It is still placed atop a pole and then paraded through town.  People in town, or mummers, dress in masks, straw suits, and silly costumes and parade through town to traditional music.  They still ask for money as they parade but now the funds go to charity.

So why chase this poor wren all around?  The tradition can be traced back to the druids and celtic mythology and the trickery used by the wren to defeat the eagle as king of the birds.   It could be that the wren betrayed the Irish to the Vikings in an important battle.  Maybe it was the wren singing in a bush that betrayed St. Stephen’s hiding place and led to his martyrdom?  There is no definitive reason for the parades and as with many traditions, it happens because it happens.  There is an official Wren Boy song– give it a listen.  The lyrics shed some light on the importance of getting some donations during the procession: The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Although he is little, his family is great,
I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.   Not sure I’m all that in a hurry to bring this tradition to the US!

December 26: Boxing Day

Welcome to The Yule Log, a blog that explores the spirit of Christmas, counting down to Christmas 2012. Day One is December 26, a day of rest and relaxation.  Not!  This is the second day of the traditional twelve days of Christmas celebration, ending with the Feast of the Epiphany.  The party has just started!  According to the Christmas song on this day, “my true love gave to me two turtle doves.”

Also, in England and Canda, this day is Boxing Day, the traditional time for wealthy people to box their leftovers and distribute them to the poor.  Jeremy and I have overstuffed refrigerators, so boxing up the leftovers is a good idea.

In addition, this is the Feast of St. Stephen, recognized as the first Christian martyr, the “protomartyr.”

We’ll be podcasting throughout the year.  Check us out!