Classic Christmas Carol: “St. Stephen’s Day Murders”

(Above: Ceoltoiri Chluain Tarbh [Clontarf] go on the wren in 2008.)

By Joel Francis

Information on St. Stephen is scarce. Everything known about his life is contained in two chapters in the New Testament’s book of Acts. Stephen was one of several men appointed by the 12 disciples to preach the gospel. A man “full of faith,” Stephen “did great wonders among the people.”

However, the religious leaders in the synagogues at Libertine, Cyrene and Alexandria were not impressed. They falsely accused Stephen of blaspheming against God and Moses, and bribed witness to lie and corroborate the charges. Stephen was found guilty, taken outside the city limits and stoned.

At this point, history ends and religion takes over. The Catholic Church paid tribute to Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr after the crucifixion of Christ, designated Dec. 26, St. Stephen’s Day. On this day, also known the Feast of St. Stephen, families gathered to eat and drink together. Because Christmas Day was celebrated with friends at parties at the time, this day with family was a nice counterpoint.

Centuries later, the Irish further appended the legend 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. This account conveniently ignores Stephen’s statement on trial about seeing the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 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.

With this tradition in mind, Catholic-raised songwriter Elvis Costello teamed with Irish luminary Paddy Maloney and the Chieftains to pen a song depicting one of the most Irish of holidays. Against the backdrop of an Irish reel, Costello paints the picture of family “feeding their faces until they explode and getting drunk in an attempt to hide the awkwardness that comes with not having seen each other since this time last year.

The day’s only relief comes when the nattering, obnoxious children finally go out to murder the wren and the adults are finally “rid of them (rid of them!).”

“St. Stephen’s Day Murders” originally appeared on the Chieftains’ 1991 holiday album “The Bells of Dublin.” The theme of the wren is revisited in the songs “The Arrival of the Wren Boys” and “The Wren in the Furze Dance.” “St. Stephen’s Day Murders” also appears as a bonus track on the Rhino edition of Elvis Costello’s “Mighty Like A Rose.”

Keep reading:

Classic Christmas Carol: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”

Classic Christmas Carol: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Fairytale of New York”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Jesus Christ”

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