Dec 26 – Lá Fhéile Stiofáin/Lá an Dreoilín


-Wrenboys on Wren Day in Dingle, Ireland, please click on the image for greater detail

The wren, oh the wren; he’s the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day he got caught in the furze,
So it’s up with the kettle and it’s down with the pan,
Won’t you give us a penny for to bury the wren?

Well it’s Christmas time; that’s why we’re here,
Please be good enough to give us an ear,
For we’ll sing and we’ll dance if youse give us a chance,
And we won’t be comin’ back for another whole year!

We’ll play Kerry polkas; they’re real hot stuff,
We’ll play the Mason’s Apron and the Pinch of Snuff,
Jon Maroney’s jig and the Donegal reel,
Music made to put a spring in your heel!

If there’s a drink in the house, would it make itself known,
Before I sing a song called “The Banks of the Lowne”,
A drink with lubri-mication in it,
For me poor dry throat and I’ll sing like a linnet!

Oh please give us something for the little bird’s wake,
A big lump of pudding or some Christmas cake,
A fist full o’ goose and a hot cup o’ tay (Tea),
And then we’ll all be goin’ on our way!

The wren, oh the wren; he’s the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day he got caught in the furze,
So it’s up with the kettle and it’s down with the pan,
Won’t you give us a penny for to bury the wren?

December 26 is one of nine official public holidays in Ireland, in English, Wren Day. This name alludes to several legends, including those found in Irish mythology, linking episodes in the life of Jesus to the wren. People dress up in old clothes, wear straw hats and travel from door to door with fake wrens (previously real wrens were killed) and they dance, sing and play music.

Depending on which region of the country, they are called “wrenboys” and mummers. A Mummer’s Festival is held at this time every year in the village of New Inn, County Galway, and Dingle in County Kerry. Mumming is also a big tradition in County Fermanagh in Ulster. Saint Stephen’s Day is a popular day for visiting family members and going to the theatre to see a pantomime. In most of Ulster in the north of Ireland, the day is usually known as Boxing Day, especially in Northern Ireland and County Donegal.

Irish further appended St Stephen’s Day with the hunting of wren. At some point during the Feast of St. Stephen, the children from each family would find a wren and chase it until it was captured or died from exhaustion. After “going on the wren,” the children would tie the dead bird to the end of a pole or put it in a cage and parade around town singing.

Each group would stop at homes around the neighborhood, show their bird and collect some money. At the end of the day, the money the town’s children gathered was pooled and used to host a huge city-wide dance.

There are two tales why the wren became the unfortunate victim of the day. In one version, St. Stephen had all but eluded his capture when a singing wren betrayed his hiding place. The other explanation is that during the Viking raids on the Emerald Island in the eighth century, wrens betrayed the Irish soldiers’ location and foiled a potential ambush.

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-Cardinal Miloslav Vlk with the skull of Saint Wenceslaus during a procession on September 28, 2006, please click on the image for greater detail

“Good King Wenceslas” is a Christmas carol that tells a story of a Bohemian king going on a journey and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the Second Day of Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints which are warmed by the saint’s holiness, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia or Svatý Václav in Czech (907–935). The name Wenceslas is a Latinised version of the old Czech language “Venceslav”.

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, tho’ 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 shall see him dine, when we bear them 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, good my 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.


-by Br Paul Marich, OP

“Today is known as Boxing Day in England, where the wealthy would traditionally give gifts to their servants and to the less fortunate. Interestingly enough, there is a link between this secular commemoration, today’s liturgical feast of Saint Stephen, and the message of the mid-nineteenth century English carol, Good King Wenceslaus. While both St. Stephen and Wenceslaus wore the martyr’s crown, they were also known for their service to the poor, which they undertook for the sake of Christ. Their mutual witness shows us how the mystery of Christmas can transform us into loving disciples of the newborn Savior.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we find Stephen, a young man “full of grace and power” who “did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). As one of the first deacons, he was committed to serving the poor and widows, so that the Apostles could freely fulfill their preaching mission. He defended the Faith against those who were trying to silence the followers of Christ, eventually succumbing to death by stoning. We celebrate him as the first martyr on the day after Christmas, because he reminds us of the ultimate mission of the newborn savior, who came to earth in order to die for our sins.

With St. Stephen as his example, it was quite fitting that “Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the feast of Stephen.” Who was this good “King Wenceslaus”? Wenceslaus I—more precisely, the Duke of Bohemia—was born around 907. His path to holiness was inspired by his grandmother, Saint Ludmila, who was one of the first to be baptized in Bohemia. He succeeded his father as duke when he was only a teenager, and was known for his devotion and virtue. Like Stephen, Wenceslaus assisted the poor with alms as a young man. In 935, he was killed by his brother, who resented Wenceslaus’ allegiance to both the Church and the German king. Saint Wenceslaus has been venerated as a martyr ever since his death.

It is the charity of St. Wenceslaus that is the major theme of the carol that bears his name, but we must carefully read each verse in order to unlock this message. We find the first clue at the end of verse 1: “When a poor man came in sight gath’ring winter fuel.” In verse 3, Wenceslaus and his page feed this poor man and provide him with firewood for the wintry night. By verse 4, the page is spent, unable to go further due to the cold. Wenceslaus commands him to follow in his steps, as “Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.” The presence of the saint radiates the love of Christ in the midst of the winter’s cold. It was Christ Whom Wenceslaus proclaimed, for His coming into the world scatters the darkness and warms the hardened hearts of sinners. All of us, regardless of status, must serve Christ in the poor and helpless, for in doing so, we proclaim the good news of salvation with the hope of eternal life. The final words of the carol teach such a lesson:

“Therefore, Christian men, be sure,

wealth or rank possessing,

Ye who now will bless the poor,

Shall yourselves find blessing.”

Saint Wenceslaus lived this lesson eminently, humbling himself from his throne to help the poor and downtrodden.

Christmastime can prompt us to help those who are needy, yet such sentiments for good deeds should not be a mere formality or come by way of social obligation. Rather, they must be rooted in a love for the Infant lying in the manger. Christ’s lowly birth shows us our own poverty and weakness, as He descended among us to raise us out of the poverty of sin. Saints Stephen and Wenceslaus are venerated as martyrs, yet their witness includes a love for Christ in the poor, which preceded their ultimate sacrifice for Him. Their example inspires us to bring the love of the newborn Christ to all those we encounter, both at Christmas and throughout the whole year.”

Love,
Matthew

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