Today is Saint Stephen’s Day. The day on which Good King Wenceslas looked out. It is also called Boxing Day and is traditionally the day on which servants received gifts from their employers and were allowed to go home to their families after spending all of Christmas Day being servants. Their gift, their Christmas box, might contain money and left over food from the feast. The ‘box’ part of Boxing Day may also refer to a metal box placed outside churches for people to put in gifts to be given to the needy. It is a day for helping the less fortunate, which is why we find Wenceslas and his page trudging out into the snow with gifts of meat, wine and pine logs.
The tune of Good King Wenceslas is actually belongs to a spring carol called ‘Tempus adest floridum’ (It is time for flowering) which dates from the thirteenth century. The words were written by John Mason Neale in 1853. Academics seemed generally not to like it very much and rather hoped it would just go away. It has been called “poor and commonplace to the last degree” and the “product of an unnatural marriage between Victorian whimsy and the thirteenth-century dance carol”. Which just goes to show that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. As an aside (it is really easy to get distracted writing this blog) a version of tempus adest floridum appears in the original Carmina Burana, not the Carl Orff version, the huge collection of bawdy, irreverent and satirical poems which date from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries on which it is based. It contains the lines: “Virgines cum clericis simul procedamus, Per amorem Veneris ludum faciamus” (Virgins and clerics, let us go out together, let us play for the love of Venus)
In parts of the British Isles there is another tradition of December 26th known as ‘The Feast of the Wren’. In folklore and legend, the wren is a tricky bird with a mixed reputation. Perhaps he gave away the hiding place of Saint Stephen and was ultimately responsible for his martyrdom. Perhaps he foretold the murder of Julius Caesar. Perhaps he ruined a secret, night time attack by the Irish on their Viking invaders by picking some crumbs off a drum and waking everyone up. In a fable attributed to Aesop, a wren wins a contest to find out which bird can fly the highest by hiding among the feathers of an eagle and then flying out when the eagle was too tired to go any higher. The wren is clever and, for this reason, he is the King of the Birds. The wren’s association with midwinter pre-date Christianity. The bird has a habit of singing even in the depths of winter. In the Netherlands it is known as ‘winterkoninkje’, little winter king. Celtic mythology considered the wren to be a symbol of the old year.
Originally, the Feast of the Wren involved hunting down a wren and tying it to a pole that was decorated with ribbons and flowers. It was then paraded around the village. The ceremony was carried out by a rather raucous bunch known as ‘the wren boys’. They wore masks and ragged suits of motley or of straw. They probably had a noisy band with them too. They would go to each house asking for money for their wren king. Sometimes a feather from the bird would be exchanged for a donation. A wren feather would bring good luck. Sailors and fishermen believed that a wren feather would protect them from shipwreck. If anyone failed to give money, the wren might be buried outside their door which, as you might guess, was very bad luck indeed. The money collected was used to fund a huge party for the community. The wren king tradition still survives in Ireland and has been resurrected in other parts of the British Isles. We don’t use a live wren any more. A fake wren is made and hidden so the wren boys still have to hunt for it. Also it is more likely that the money raised will be given to charity.
I first learned about this tradition from a song I learned called ‘Please To See The King’ at a choir I used to sing with. There are quite a lot of traditional folk songs connected with the hunting of the wren, If you care to, you can hear the Steeleye Span version of the one I know here. A few years ago the song inspired me to make my own wren king. That’s him in the little box. He’s been out carolling a few times, but he lives on my living room wall now.