In our crass consumer culture we get the Feast of St. Stephen which reminds us giving comes with sacrifice and love comes with challenge.
[Audio to come soon]
The question we’ve all asked at some point, even if that point was a short time ago when you walked in here is this: why do we celebrate the first martyr on the day after Christmas?
What a buzzkill!
We’re all happy and giving thanks for the light coming in the darkness; the birth of Christ! Jesus is here!
Or we’ve happily gathered with family and friends and we’ve shared gifts, watched Christmas movies, the whole bit.
Stephen’s a bit of a downer, isn’t he?
This quest to figure out our patronal feast day has led me down so many different rabbit holes, I’m not sure what I’ve found. Which actually may be the best part of the story.
Before there was the Feast of St. Stephen, there was an old Celtic tradition about a wren. A wren is a small songbird that is often found in bushes and near people. It likes to be near civilization. Which is worth keeping in mind.
The Celts in Northern Europe, most notably in Ireland, would hunt the wren as part of their solstice festival. It seems that there are many conflicting stories over the last 2000 years about where it began. But one makes the most sense to me.
The Celts didn’t carry the Jewish purity concern around blood and bleeding. They understood that blood and birth were linked. We can see in creation a beautiful order to everything—a cycle of life and death and of constant new possibility and opportunity.
And they knew that this was something women and girls knew personally. And therefore, boys and men had to be taught this connection: not just life and death, but of blood and birth.
So during the festival of creation after the winter solstice, they would send the boys out to hunt a wren. And they would use the blood of the wren to renew creation.
So the boys could come to understand and play a more important part to the community in renewing creation.
When I looked further into this Celtic tradition of hunting wrens, I found much of this story absent. As much else in our world, medieval traditions have obscured our origins and eclipsed their purposes.
The wren became known as the King of Birds because of its cunning. The myth they told was a God-sponsored contest between all the birds to see who could fly the highest. Each bird soared higher and higher. Then one-by-one, they’d be overcome with exhaustion and drop out until the only bird remaining was the eagle.
Eventually the eagle too tired. As the broad wings began to slow, the sneaky wren, hiding itself among the eagle’s feathers took flight from there, achieving the highest height. The king’s cunning stole the crown!
This sneaky character became central to how the people treated the poor bird.
Many came to believe that it was a wren which betrayed St. Stephen. So many believe the hunt of the wren today is based on the bird’s sin.
Many would stone wrens this day like they stoned St. Stephen.
And the boys, rather than learn about life cycles and their part in renewing creation, became more like a band of brigands, extorting money from the people as they paraded a wren through town.
In other words, a tradition the community made to share in the redeeming character of creation was overrun with toxic masculinity, fear, and blood lust.
The more I dug into these stories, the more they seemed like explanations written after the fact. They didn’t go about killing wrens because of Stephen—they were already killing wrens before Stephen!
The more obvious explanation is also more simple.
People were more drawn to the killing than to the renewing.
They didn’t want to learn about the way the world is half as much as they liked dressing up and hunting the elusive prey. It justified the desires they had to kill because they were practicing their tradition.
Tradition overcame its purpose.
So then what does this have to do with Stephen?
When the Christians met the Celts, they saw this festival of creation as dealing with the same ideas as found in their faith. The incarnation of God in Jesus matched the incarnation of God in creation. They saw in this sacrifice of the wren, the same character as the martyrdom of Stephen.
And looking at how Wren Day or Wrenning Day has developed since, we can see an inverse correlation to Stephen. We can see how the people’s fear and justification was taken out on the wren like it was Stephen.
We can see that the traditions which grew to love the hunt more than creation distorted the Feast of St. Stephen. The maintenance of ideological purity sent the people out to protect tradition and make martyrs of wrens rather than learn the lesson they teach.
So we can ultimately see in the wren that same character as Stephen. They are a small songbird who dwell among the people and whose voice proclaims the glory of God.
Stephen was the first deacon and the first martyr. Which makes him someone few of us really wish to emulate, if we’re being honest. Even if that would make us loved first by God. That being stoned to death is a pretty high price for a first class seat. Most of us are fine with coach.
But it is this sense of sacrifice and giving which makes this Feast of St. Stephen such an important day for Christians and for how we see Christmas.
The British have an old tradition of calling today Boxing Day. Etymologists can’t find a reference to it before the 1700s, and then it was a day of gift-giving to those who supplied services to us.
So I’m thinking of it like the bag of cookies we give to the kids’ bus driver or an apple for the teacher.
But it may have a more Stephenly origin.
For many, it is the day in which we box up offerings to the poor, the hungry, and the homeless.
And the more I thought about this tradition, the more it sounded like what we do, this time of year especially.
We collected for the Salvation Army and Toys for Tots before Christmas and then have the homeless Point-in-Time count at the end of January. In a couple of weeks, we’ll have our own Bagging Day with heavy Ziploc Bags rather than boxes.
We do Boxing Day throughout the year!
So the question many of us walked in asking: why celebrate the first martyr the day after Christmas? is actually quite simple if we think about it.
It reminds us to expand Christmas.
That Christmas is not just about babies and gifts. And the story isn’t all joy and cheer. That even after the light has come, darkness doesn’t entirely disappear.
But our work is simply to share the joy in a world of sadness; thanksgiving in a world of anxiety; hope in a world of fear.
And maybe for us especially, share in Jesus’s life-giving hope when we seem surrounded by a culture obsessed with death.
And if we’re as wise as our ancestors, we can draw on the beauty of creation to give us wisdom, not justification; hope rather than despair; that our voices (and boxes) may proclaim the glory of God.