When I was a child, Saint Stephen’s Day was a time for the elder generations to reflect and take stock. A time for renewing old bonds, setting aside old enmities and reaching out to those they had lost touch with.
A time to visit people who hated the living sight of them, wish them season’s greetings and annoy the shit out of them by drinking their whiskey and eating all their food. How well I remember my father dragging me up the street towards the door of some hated relative, with a cheery Christmas song on his lips. Hold out your hand and look poor, he used to snarl. Keep holding it out until they give you enough.
In those days, the barefoot Wran Boys would come running though our street in the morning, with their blackened faces and their cheery urchin grins, knocking on doors and singing
The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
This is the day we follow the wran
And my father would open the window and lean out to them and he’d say It’s a fucking wren, ye ignorant little fuckers, now fuck off home to your thieving bastard no-good fathers and let us alone!
And then he might throw a poker or maybe a broken kettle at them, and sometimes it would hit one of the smaller ones and with any luck it might even draw blood.
How we used to laugh.
Of course, St Stephen’s Day was also the day when we surveyed the wreckage of our Christmas presents to see if there was anything we hadn’t broken, but usually there was nothing left. And then we’d have to call around to the neighbours’ children and break all their toys instead, but that was fine. I think we loved St Stephen’s Day even more than we loved Christmas Day.
One of my favourite toys was the Meccano set. You can’t get them any more, I believe, but they were very good. You could build anything with them, all from nuts and bolts and flanges and brackets and trunnions and sprockets. We knew they were very good because it was printed on the box: Made in England. That was much better than Made in Japan, and we were too poor to have anything Made in America.
You could make anything you wanted with the Meccano set. You could build a guillotine or a gallows, or a rack. You could build an Iron Maiden with spikes in its eyes, and you could put your sister’s Barbie into it for being a heretic.
It was great.
I think my very favourite toy, though, was probably the kit you could build an aeroplane from, or a ship, or a tank, by sticking together the little pieces of polystyrene. And then you could paint them with their swastikas or their roundels or their stars’n’stripes or whatever they were supposed to have. The little bombers and fighters and transports, so realistic after you’d painted them in all their camouflage colours. I used to break off the propellor blades to make it look like they were really flying. And then you could take them upstairs, and set fire to them and throw them at dogs in the street, or if you were lucky, a passing priest, and if you were really lucky it might even set fire to his hat. Sometime my father would catch me setting fire to a passing priest and he’d laugh himself sick. And then he’d give me a small whiskey and tell me I was a very bad boy and not to do that again next year.
Oh how we laughed in the old times. They don’t celebrate St Stepen’s Day properly any more. These days it’s all commercialised.