Today, January 6th, is “Little Christmas” – the day the three Wise Men dropped in on Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the manger. In many countries it’s the day that gifts are exchanged. My mother always made a big deal of Little Christmas in our house. The figurines of the Magi bearing their gifts, Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh (and their camel), would be kept to one side and only on this day would they take their places alongside the Holy Family (and the donkey) in the crib that was set up on the sideboard weeks before. We would fight (but not out loudly) over who would do the honors. Little Christmas was also the day that your presents could be taken back by Santa if you hadn’t behaved yourself during the holidays.
She was brilliant my mother, when it came to keeping order. I’m sure she enjoyed the relative peace as we kids tried to moderate our behavior on the days following Christmas. Back then we believed everything she said.
I miss Christmases in Ireland and all the attending hoopla.
In our house the festivities began on December 8 (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception) with the icing of the cakes. (For years, I thought of this feast day as the day that Mary conceived Jesus, until it was pointed out to me that it was the feast of The Immaculate Conception of Mary herself by her mother, which makes a lot more sense in terms of a timeline!).
I especially miss celebrating St. Stephen’s Day on December 26th, which is just another day here. (It makes me sort of sad to see discarded Christmas trees on the sidewalks of New York on the day after Christmas.)
This was the day that the Ormond Hunt, the riders in their splendid red jackets, would gather at the Ballycommon crossroads -- outside the pub. My father would be there (the first Catholic to ride with the Ormond Hounds!) and, as they grew up, my brothers. The Hunt would often ride through our farm -- horses jumping over ditches and walls; dashing across the countryside -- the hounds following along or leading the way, barking loudly. I was always a bit nervous of the frenzy; the barking and the sound of the bugle being blasted by the lead rider would send shivers up my spine. I used to pray that the fox would get away and it usually did.
A tradition I enjoyed more was the visit by the Wrenboys.
St. Stephen’s Day was also known as Wren Day, as in “Hunting the Wren.”
Dressed up in costumes with their faces blackened, the Wrenboys would travel from house to house playing instruments and singing.
I still remember the first couple of lines from the song that was sung:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little his honor was great,
Jump up me lads and give us a treat.
There are different explanations for the tradition of hunting the wren. The name wren in Gaelic dreoilín -- is derived from two words, draoi ean, or Druid bird, and it’s thought by some folklorists that the tradition stems from early Christian opposition to the Druids. Others say that the wren was responsible for betraying St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
Anyway, by my time there was no killing of the bird only the costumes and the music. Thank God.
In other parts of Ireland, particularly in the West, the Wrenboys are known as the Mummers. They dress in straw suits and hats and also appear at weddings, a tradition that’s making a comeback lately.
The custom of dressing in straw suits was also taken up by the Whiteboys -- a secret society in 18th century Ireland who defended tenants rights.
A Mummers festival is traditionally held in Dingle, County Kerry on St. Stephen’s Day. While here in the U.S., the Philadelphia Mummers, with their wonderful costumes and music, hold their parade on New Year’s Day.