Feast of St Stephen was a dangerous time for Jenny Wren

The firecrest, left, and the wren.
The firecrest, left, and the wren.

Written by Heather Elvidge

Even in our noisy world, it’s possible to find stillness as midnight approaches on Christmas Eve. This is the traditional time to hear angels, if you dare. To enjoy their celestial harmonies you must sit under a pine tree at midnight.

According to folklore, a lot is going on in this magical time between days. Bees in their hives hum psalm 100. Cockerels are crowing, including the ones on weathervanes. Cattle kneel, bowing toward the east as their ancestors did at the birth of the Holy Child. For a few precious moments all animals have the power of speech, but be warned — eavesdropping brings bad luck to the listener.

While the animals are rejoicing, a jolly fat elf is entering our homes by way of the chimney. As his reindeer wait patiently on the roof, Santa enjoys a drink and mince pie. It’s always prudent to reward helpful elves or brownies, especially when they leave presents.

Today our pets get presents too — their own stockings filled with toys and treats. Some might think this a silly indulgence, but farm animals used to receive special rations on Christmas Eve. Perhaps they still do.

St Stephen’s Day

Gifts of a different kind were customary on December 26. It began in the 17th century when kind employers saved coins in a box for their apprentices and servants. Church alms boxes were also emptied on this day and their contents distributed among the needy.

By the 18th century tradesmen were in on the act. Although actual boxes were no longer involved these cash gifts were called Christmas boxes. By the late Victorian period St Stephen’s had become Boxing Day.

As the saint was associated with horses his feast day was the occasion for the animals to be exercised. Today hunts continue the tradition with the Boxing Day meet, and December 26 is a key date for jump racing.

On St Stephen’s Day, a little bird was in danger. Parties of young men used to hunt and kill a wren, then display its body in a “cage” of holly.

This custom took place in Pembrokeshire, The Isle of Man, and Ireland until the end of the 19th century, when people began to condemn it as cruel. Wren Boys in Wales and Man were the first to replace the bird with an effigy, and in this form the custom continues.

So no wrens are harmed now. But it’s odd that they ever were, because to kill a wren was to invite the worst kind of luck. In Britain, Jenny Wren was said to be Robin’s wife.

Maybe the unfortunate bird was the one that used to be called the “goldcrest wren”, which has a bright orange bar on its crown. Or perhaps it was the firecrest, a tiny winter visitor from Russia. Its brilliant crown edged with black and white stripes resembles a glowing ember.

An old story from Scotland tells how the wren became King of all Birds by winning a contest to see who could fly the highest. The eagle was certain he’d won. But the tiny wren had been hiding on his back. When the exhausted eagle could fly no higher, the wren flew up to snatch the crown.