The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

December 26 - St. Stephen

William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827.

Volume 1

St. Stephen, the first Martyr. St. Dionysius, Pope, A.D. 269. St. Jarlath, 1st Bp. of Tuam, 6th Cent.

St. Stephen.

The church of England observes this festival, and the name of the apostle is in the almanacs accordingly. The circumstances that led to his death, and the particulars of it by stoning, are related in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. He is deemed the first martyr for the Christian faith.


The notice of this festival by Naogeorgus is thus translated by Barnaby Googe:—

Then followth Saint Stephens day,
      whereon doth every man
His horses jaunt and course abrode,
      as swiftly as he can,
Until they doe extreemely sweate,
      and than they let them blood,
For this being done upon this day,
      they say doth do them good,
And keepes them from all maladies
      and sickensse through the yeare,
As if that Steven any time
      took charge of horses heare.


Whether Stephen was the patron of horses does not appear; but our ancestors used his festival for calling in the horse-leech. Tusser, in his "Five Hundred Points of Husbandry," says,

Yer Christmas be passed,
       let Horsse, be lett blood,
For many a purpose
      it doth him much good:
The day of St. Steven,
      old fathers did use,
If that do mislike thee,
      some other day chuse.

An annotator on Tusser subjoins, "About Christmas is a very proper time to bleed horses in, for then they are commonly at house, then spring comes on, the sun being now coming back from the winter solstice, and there are three or four days of rest, and if it be upon St. Stephen's day it is not the worse, seeing there are with it three days of rest, or at least two." In the "Receipts and Disbursements of the Canons of St. Mary in Huntingdon," is the following entry: "Item, for letting our horses blede in Chrystmasse weke iiijd."1 According to one of Mr. Douce's manuscript notes, he thinks the practice of bleeding horses on this day is extremely ancient, and that it was brought into this country by the Danes. It is noticed in "Wits Fits and Fancies," an old and rare book, that on "S. Stevens-day it is the custome for all horses to be let bloud and drench'd. A gentleman being (that morning) demaunded whether it pleased him to have his horse let bloud and drencht, according to the fashion? He answered, no, sirra, my horse is not diseas'd of the fashions." Mr. Ellis in a note on Mr. Brand quotes, that Aubrey says, "On St. Stephen's-day the farrier came constantly and blouded all our cart-horses."2

The Finns upon St. Stephen's-day, throw a piece of money, or a bit of silver, inot the trough out of which the horses drink, under the notion that it prospers those who do it.3


Heit! Heck! Whoohe! and Geho!

The well-known interjection used by country people to their horses, when yoked to a cart, &c. Heit! or Heck! is noticed by Mr. Brand to have been used in the days of Chaucer:—

They saw a cart, that charged was with hay,
The which a carter drove forth on his way:
Depe was the way, for which the carte stode;
The carter smote and cryde as he were wode,
Heit Scot! Heit Brok! what spare ye for the stones?
The Fend quoth he, you fetch, body and bones."4

Brok is still in frequent use amongst farmer's draught oxen.5

Whoohe! a well-known exclamation to stop a team of horses, is derived by a writer in the "Gentleman's Magazine," 1799, from the Latin. "The exclamation used by our waggoners when they wish for any purpose to stop their team (an exclamation which it is less difficult to speak than to write, although neither is a task of great facility,) is probably a legacy bequeathed us by our Roman ancestors: precisely a translation of the ancient Ohe! an interjection strictly confined to bespeaking a pause—rendered by our lexicographers, Enough! Oh, Enough!

"Ohe, jani satis est—Ohe, Libelle."

A learned friend of Mr. Brand's says, "The exclamation 'Geho, Geho,' which carmen use to their horses is probably of great antiquity. It is not peculiar to this country, as I have heard it used in France. In the story of the milkmaid who kicked down her pail, and with it all her hopes of getting rich, as related in a very ancient 'Collection of Apologues,' entitled 'Dialogus Creaturarum,' printed at Gouda, in 1480, is the following passage: 'Et cum sic gloriaretur, et cogitaret cum quanta gloria duceretur ad illum virum super equum dicendo gio gio, cepit pede percutere terram quasi pungeret equum calcaribus.'"


It appears from a memoir on the manner in which the inhabitants of the north riding of Yorkshire celebrate Christmas, in the "Gentleman's Magazine," 1811, that "On the feast of St. Stephen large goose pies are made, all of which they distribute among their needy neighbours, except one which is carefully laid up, and not tasted till the purification of the virgin, called Candlemas."


Boxing Day.

On the day after Christmas, tradespeople are visited by persons in the employment of their customers for a "Christmas-box," and every man and boy who thinks he is qualified to ask, solicits from those on whom he calculates as likely to bestow. A writer, in 1731, describes Boxing-day at that time from his own experience. "By that time I was up, my servants could do nothing but run to the door. Inquiring the meaning, I was answered, the people were come for the Christmas-box: this was logic to me; but I found at last, that, because I had laid out a great deal of ready-money with my brewer, baker, and other tradesmen, they kindly thought it my duty to present their servants with some money for the favour of having their goods. This provoked me a little; but being told it was 'the custom,' I complied. These were followed by the watch, beadles, dustmen, and an innumerable tribe; but what vexed me the most was the clerk, who has an extraordinary place, and makes as good an appearance as most tradesmen in the parish; to see him come a boxing, alias begging, I thought was intolerable: however, I found it was 'the custom' too, so I gave him half-a-crown; as I was likewise obliged to do to the bellman, for breaking my rest for many nights together.

"Having talked this matter over with a friend, he promised to carry me where I might see the good effects of this giving box-money. In the evening, away we went to a neighbouring alehouse, where abundance of these gentry were assembled round a stately piece of roast beef, and as large a plum-pudding. When the drink and brandy began to work, they fell to reckoning of their several gains that day: one was called stingy dog for giving but sixpence; another called an extravagant fool for giving half-a-crown, which perhaps he might want before the year was out; so I found these good people were never to be pleased. Some of them were got to cards by themselves, which soon produced a quarrel and broken heads. In the interim came in some of their wives, who roundly abused the people for having given them money; adding, that instead of doing good, it ruined their families, and set them in a road of drinking and gaming, which never ceased till not only their gifts, but their wages, were gone. One good woman said, if people had a mind to give charity, they should send it home to their families: I was very much of her opinion; but, being tired with the noise, we left them to agree as they could.

"My friend next carried me to the upper end of Piccadilly, where, one pair of stairs over a stable, we found near a hundred people of both sexes, some masked, others not, a great part of which were dancing to the music of two sorry fiddles. It is impossible to describe this medley of mortals fully; however, I will do it as well as I can. There were footmen, servant-maids, butchers, apprentices, oyster and orange-women, and sharpers, which appeared to be the best of the company. This horrid place seemed to be a complete nursery for the gallows. My friend informed me, it was called a 'three-penny hop;' and while we were talking, to my great satisfaction, by order of the Westminster justices, to their immortal honour, entered the constables and their assistants, who carried off all the company that was left; and, had not my friend been known to them, we might have paid dear for our curiosity."6



Purple Heath. Erica purpurea.
Dedicated to St. Stephen.


Notes from Hone:

1. Mr. Nichols's Illustration of Anc. Times. Return

2. In Lansdowne MS. 226. British Museum. Return

3. Tooke's Russia. Return

4. Frere's T. ed. Tyrwh. Chaucer. Return

5. Brand. Return

6. Cited in Malcolm's London, 18th Cent. Return

Editor's Note: See, generally, Hymns to St Stephen

William Hone, The Year Book of Daily Recreation and Information. London: Thomas Tegg, 1832. December 26, St. Stephen's Day.

The day after Christmas day is always observed as “boxing day,” in places where still lingers the decaying custom of soliciting gifts under the denomination


Gladly, the boy, with Christmas box in hand,
Throughout the town, his devious rout pursues
And of his master’s customers implores
The yearly mite: often his cash he shakes;
The which, perchance, of coppers few consists,
Whose dulcet jingle tills his little soul
With joy as boundless as the debtor feels,
When, from the bailiff’s rude, uncivil gripe
His friends redeem him, and with pity fraught
The claims of all his creditors discharge.



[For the Year Book.]

In the hall of the Inner Temple, on St. Stephen’s day, after the first course was served in, the constable marshal was wont to enter the ball bravely arrayed with a “fair, rich, compleat harneys, white, and bright, and gilt, with a nest of fethers of all colours upon his crest or helm, and a gilt pole ax in his hand,” accompanied by the Lieutenant of the tower, “armed with a fair white armour,” wearing like fethers “with a like pole ax in his hand,” and with them sixteen trumpeters, four drums and fifes going in rank before them, and attended by four men in white “harneys” from the middle upwards, and halberds in their hands, bearing on their shoulders a model of the tower: which persons with the drums and music went three times round the fire. Then the constable marshal knelt down before the lord chancellor, and behind him the lieutenant, and in this humble guise, the former personage edified the revellers with an oration of a quarter of an hour’s length, declaring that the purpose of his coming was to be admitted into his lordship’s service, to which the chancellor answered that he would “take farther advice therein.”

Then the constable marshal standing up, in submissive manner, delivered his naked sword to the steward, who presented it to the chancellor, who thereupon “willed” the marshal to place the Constable marshal in his seat, with the lieutenant also in his seat. During this ceremony “the tower “ was placed “beneath the fire.” Next entered the master of the game apparelled in green velvet, and the ranger of the forest in a green Suit of satten, bearing in his hand a green bow and “divers,” arrows “with either of them a hunting horn about their necks, blowing together three blasts of venery.” These having strided round the fire thrice, the master of the game having made three “courtestes” knelt down before the lord chancellor, and put up the same petition as the constable marshal, the ranger of the forest standing demurely behind him.

At the conclusion of this ceremony, a huntsman came into the hall bearing a fox, a pursenet,1 and a cat, both bound at the end of a staff; attended by nine or ten couples of hounds with the blowing of hunting horns. Then were the fox and cat set upon and killed by the dogs beneath the fire, to the no small pleasure of the spectators.”

What this “merry disport” signified (if practised) before the reformation, I know not. In “Ane compendious boke of godly and spiritual songs, Edinburgh, 1621, printed from an old copy,” are the following lines, seemingly referring to some such pageant :—

The hunter is Christ that hunts in haist
The hands are Peter and Pawle,
The paip is the fox, Rome is the fox
That rubbis us on the gall.

Then proceeded the second course, which done, and served out, the common sergeant made a “plausible speech” to the lord chancellor and his friends at the highest table, showing forth the necessity of having a marshal and master of the game, “for the better reputation” of the commonwealth, and wished them to be received. This oration was seconded by the king’s sergeant at law, which heard, —the “ancientest of the masters of the revels” sang merrily with the assistance of others there present.

Only fancy the “ancientest of the masters of the revels“ chanting such stanzas as the following,—

Bring hither the bowle
The brimming brown bowle,
And quaff the rich juice right merrilie
Let the wine cup go round
Till the solid ground
Shall quake at the noise of our reveirie.

Let wassail and wine
Their pleasures combine,
While we quaff the rich juice right merrilie;
Let us drink till we die,
When the saints we relie
Will mingle their songs with our reveirie.”

After supper, which was served with like solemnity as on Christmas day, the constable marshal again presented himself with drums before him, mounted on a scaffold, home by four men, and going thrice round the hearth, he shouted “a lord! a lord!“ then descending from his elevation, and having danced awhile, he called his court severally by name in this manner:—

Sir Francis Flatterer, of Fowleshurst, in the county of Buckingham.”

Sir Randle Backabite, of Rascall Hall, in the county of Rabchell.”

Sir Morgan Mumchance, of Much Monkery, in the county of Mad Popery,” (and others.) This done, the lord of misrule “addressed” himself to the banquet, which, when ended with some “minstralsye,” mirth and dancing, every man departed to rest. “At every mess, a pot of wine allowed: every repast was vid.”

On St. John’s day (upon the morrow) the lord of misrule was abroad by 7 o’ clock in the morning, and repairing to the chambers he compelled any of his officers who were missing to attend him to breakfast with brawn, &c.; “after breakfast ended, his lordship’s power was in suspense, until his personal presence at night, and then his power was most potent.” At dinner and supper was observed the “diet and service” performed on St. Stephens day: after the second course was served, the king’s sergeant “oratour like” declared the disorder of the constable marshal, and common sergeant’; the latter of whom “defended” himself and his companion “with words of great efficacy.” Hereto the king’s servant replied, they rejoined, and whoso was found faulty was sent to the tower. On the Thursday following, the chancellor and company partook of dinner of roast beef and venison pasties, and at supper of “mutton and hens roasted.”

Walworth, Oct. 1831.


1. Puroenet, a net of which the mouth is drawn together by a string. Johnson. Return


William Hone, The Year Book of Daily Recreation and Information. London: Thomas Tegg, 1832.
December 30
The Wren! The Wren!

[To Mr. Hone.]

December 17, 1827.

Sir,—An aged, respectable, and duteously respected native of Middleton, in Cork, has often amused and delighted me with the “legendary lore” of that part of Ireland. I have often heard her relate, that within her remembrance it was a custom, upon St. Stephen’s day, for the young men of the vicinity, in their holiday attire, decorated with gay and various colored ribbons in their slieves and hats, and one of them carrying a furze bush in which a wren was secured, to parade the town and contiguous places. Stopping opposite the mansions of the gentry, one of the party repeated these lines :—

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
Was caught St. Stephen’s day in the furze;
Although he’s little, his family’s great,
Then pray, kind gentlefolks, give him a treat.

Instantly, in the true spirit of Irish hospitality, open flew the gates; and the little “king of all birds,” entering with his attendants, found the trate (as the rhyme and the national accent would have it,) prepared for him. Whether his aerial majesty condescended to partake of the good cheer spread for his welcome, I have not learned; but this is certain, his gay retinue were never suffered to depart till their entertainers had generously proved in how high esteem the honour of his gracious visit was held.

I am ignorant of the origin of Saint Stephen’s “Boxing Day” in Ireland, as it is in England; but the reason for the Irish boys having assumed the dress of the joyful “mummers” of May, and carrying with them a wren, and in his name making their claim upon the liberal, was grounded on the following tradition:

During one of those dreadful periods when Ireland writhed in the agonies of rebellion, a party of royalists, having been harassed by their enemy and exposed to imminent danger, insomuch that they could obtain no rest for several days and nights, worn out with hardships, and incessant watchfulness, they bivouacked in a secluded valley which they considered a place of safety. They lay stretched upon the turf in deep sleep, and even the sentinel yielded to its influence. In vain he strove to listen and watch for the foe; he heard the strong breathing of his comrades, and sank down among them. While they lay thus, as dead men, the enemy, aware of their exhausted state and suspecting the place of their retreat, were silently bearing down upon them with bloody purposes and ready weapons. They were within musket-shot of their intended victims, when a wren tapped with its bill three times upon the drum. The sound startled the sentinel; he sprang up, saw the retiring bird, and the advancing multitude; and alarmed his sleeping comrades to arms. Rendered desperate by the danger of their situation and the suddenness of the surprise, they met the confused and disappointed foes and conquered.

The custom described above, has, I am informed, been for a long time discontinued; but surely, sir, you will afford to record this exploit of St. Stephen’s day. — The story is worthy remembrance among that class of the warm-hearted children of Erin, on whose strong and ardent imaginations every thing of the wild and wonderful makes an indelible impressions and among whom the legends of their fathers are retained with religious reverence.

The wren! the wren! the king of alt birds!” cried the youths at Middleton. Perhaps, sir, if you are as little versed as the generality of our countrymen in the heraldry of the feathered tribes, you will smile — a kind smile though it be — to think how favors exalt the doer in the estimation of the favored; but, I do assure you, the wren has other titles than those which gratitude has bestowed upon him to the sovereignty of the air, He is, indeed, “king of all birds” by right of election. It is true, that another exercises the regal power; but he is an usurper, tyrannising in his strength and bigness. The following legend will substantiate my statement :—though my grandmother is not acquainted with’ it, I have heard it both from an Irishman and a German. It is, I believe, popular among the peasantry of both countries; and to what better authority can I refer you?

At the time when the birds had determined on having a king, it was decided that he who flew highest in the air should be invested with the powers and attributes of majesty. The competition was witnessed by a general assembly of the tenants of air. Several candidates “started for the prize,” among them the eagle, the length and strength of whose pinions, together with the majesty of his bearing, bespoke him the future monarch. The wren, however, determined to make up by a stratagem for what he was deficient in size and power, managed, though there were many hawks’ eyes in the assembly, just as their wings were spread to begin — the last heat I should suppose — to hop unperceived upon the eagle’s back. The great and ambitious bird felt not the weight; but soared up, up, up, till all his antagonists were out-wearied, and he was “out of sight” to most of the assembly. At last he began to descend: when the wren sprang from his back, and stretching the utmost reaching of his soul, attained to an extra elevation of some consequence. He was seen by some of the sharp-sighted gentlemen below, at a greater height in the air than either of the other candidates had reached; — how he got there puzzled all; — but, that he was there, none could deny; and he was, accordingly, declared and proclaimed, with all due solemnity and ceremonies, “king of all birds.” I remain, most respectfully, &c. W. D. K.

Editor's Note: See Brand's note on St. Stephen's Day and Hymns to St. Stephen.

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