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The Day After: December the 26th in Lore and Celebration

| December 26, 2013
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Tne entrance to Paris's Church of St. Etienne du Mont (a.k.a. St. Stephen), depicting the death of the first Christian martyr. (Dan Brekke)

Tne entrance to Paris’s Church of St. Etienne du Mont (a.k.a. St. Stephen), depicting the death of the first Christian martyr. (Dan Brekke)

Welcome to The Day After. We’ve all just caught our breath after the manifold pleasures and surprises of Christmas — pleasures, unless you were expecting a delivery from UPS or FedEx — and now, if ridership on BART this morning is any guide, the rush is on throughout the land to exchange gifts that weren’t perfect and/or take advantage of steep post-holiday discounts.

For some, the 26th of December is more than a mercantile occasion. It marks the first day of Kwanzaa, the pan-African cultural festival. (You can find guides to local Kwanzaa celebrations here, here and here. One of the group’s performing during the weeklong series of events: Dance Kaiso, which will perform Friday evening at the Bayview-Hunters Point YMCA at 1601 Lane St., San Francisco.)

‘The King of All Birds’

But there’s more — even more — to Dec. 26. Let’s take a brief tour, starting with a little bird memorialized in Irish song lyrics:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat.
—”The Wren

Of course, in Ireland and like parts, the “king of all birds” was singled out for some rough treatment the day after Christmas. A somewhat sanitized version of the song, on The Chieftain’s “Bells of Dublin” album, alludes to the death of the wren, but doesn’t explain how it came to expire. Liam Clancy’s much earlier recording of a traditional number, “The Wran Song,” doesn’t leave much doubt about what had happened to the bird: “I met a wren upon the wall/Up with me wattle and knocked him down.” In fact, if you’re inclined to explore further the Irish (and fellow Celts’) Christmastime wren customs, here’s a book for you, “Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol.”

A brief passage on the traditions of the wren hunt: “Typically, on the appointed ‘wren day’ a group of boys and men went out armed with sticks, beating the hedges from both sides and throwing clubs or other objects at the wren whenever it appeared. Eyewitnesses described the hunting of the wren in Ireland in the 1840s:

For some weeks preceding Christmas, crowds of village boys may be seen peering into hedges in search of the tiny wren; and when one is discovered the whole assemble and give eager chase to, until they have slain the little bird. In the hunt the utmost excitement prevails, shouting, screeching, and rushing; all sorts of missiles are flung at the puny mark and not infrequently they light upon the head of some less innocent being. From bush to bush, from hedge to hedge is the wren pursued and bagged with as much pride and pleasure as the cock of the woods by more ambitious sportsmen.”

And why is the wren “the king”? According to “Hunting the Wren,” the appellation goes back to a fable ascribed to Aesop: various birds vied with the eagle for the title of the king of birds. One by one, the eagle out-soared them. But the wren–the wren concealed itself in the eagle’s feathers, and as it sensed the eagle was tiring, flew up and away, farther than the eagle could reach.

Boxing Day

Enough of the wren. I really want to talk about Boxing Day and St. Stephen’s Day, also on the 26th.

What’s Boxing Day, an actual holiday in the United Kingdom and large parts of the former British Commonwealth, about? The most common explanation: it’s a day given over to distributing alms that were collected in a box that was opened the day after Christmas. The day evolved into an occasion for employers and merchants to distribute gift boxes to servants, employees, customers and sometimes the general public. Here’s a disapproving description of Boxing Day from 1825 by way of a London periodical called The Portfolio:

At length the long-anticipated and wished-for day arrives; all classes from the merchants clerk down to the parish Geoffrey Muffincap, are on the tip-toe of expectation. Many and various are the ways of soliciting a Cristmas [sic] gift. The clerk, with respectful demeanour and simpering face, pays his principal the compliments of the season, and the hint is taken; the shopman solicits a holiday, in full expectation of the usual gift accompanying the consent; the beadle, dustmen, watchmen, milkmen, pot-boys &c. all ask in plain terms for a Christmas-box, and will not easily take a refusal; crowds of little boys are seen thronging the streets at an early hour with rolled up papers in their hands, these are specimens of their talent in penmanship, which they attempt to exhibit in every house in their respective parishes; four or five of these candidates for a “box” are seen collected together to watch the success of one, who, bolder than the rest, has ventured first to try his luck. Woe to the tradesman who gives his mite: a hundred applications are sure to succeed a successful one, and what with their hindering the usual business of their shop, and their importunities to shew their “pieces” the poor man has no peace of his life. The money obtained in this way is generally expended the same evening at some of the theatres. It is truly amusing to trace the progress of boxing-day with the generality of those who go from door to door collecting this customary largess …

The Feast of Stephen

And now on to our final Dec. 26 celebration, the Feast of Stephen memorialized in the carol “Good King Wenceslas

Here’s the lowdown on St. Stephen from an encyclopedia on Roman Catholicism on the life and times of the man remembered as the first Christian martyr.

The capsule version of his trouble is recounted in the New Testament book of Acts. Therein, it’s recorded that locals in the Greater Holy Land area didn’t appreciate everything Stephen, whom Jesus’s apostles had appointed a deacon and put in charge of distributing alms to poorer members of the community, had to say on theological matters. He was accused of blasphemy, hauled before the Local Religious Tribunal, and tried. During the trial, he continued to outrage his accusers, whereupon, according to Acts 8:

“…They were cut to the heart: and they gnashed with their teeth at him. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looking up steadfastly to heaven, saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And he said: Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. And they, crying out with a loud voice, stopped their ears and with one accord ran violently upon him. And casting him forth without the city, they stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, invoking and saying: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying: Lord, lay not this sin to their charge: And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord….”

A few years ago, I was in Paris and after wandering through the Latin Quarter and up toward the Pantheon, landed in front of a church where the denouement of this story is depicted above the entrance. Stephen is shown on the ground, surrounded by a bunch of guys who don’t look at all hesitant to cast the first stone. I only slowly put the name of the church, St. Etienne du Mont, together with the story of St. Stephen (Stephen=Etienne en français).

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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