23rd December, Wren Boys
Wren Day, also known as Wren’s Day, Hunt the Wren Day or the Hunting of the Wrens (in Irish, Lá an Dreoilín) is traditionally celebrated on 26th December, St Stephen’s Day, in parts of Ireland, the Isle of Man, Wales and Newfoundland. The tradition consists of “hunting” a fake wren, and putting it on top of a decorated pole. Known as “wrenboys,” crowds of mummers, musicians or strawboys celebrate the Wren (also pronounced as the Wran) by dressing up in masks, straw suits and colourful motley clothing and, accompanied by traditional céilí music bands, parade through the towns and villages in remembrance of a festival once observed by the druids. These crowds are sometimes called wrenboys.
In past times, an actual bird was hunted by Wrenboys on St. Stephen’s Day and the captured wren was tied to the Wrenboy leader’s staff pole, sometimes dead, sometimes alive – to be killed after the parade. The parade song, of which there are many variations, called for donations from the townspeople and often, the boys gave a feather from the bird to patrons for good luck. The money was used to host a dance held that night at which the pole, decorated with ribbons, wreaths and flowers, as well as the Wren, was the centrepiece. Over time, the live bird was replaced with a fake one that was hidden,rather than chased and the band of young boys was expanded to include girls, and adults were permitted to join in. Nowadays, the money that is collected from townspeople is usually donated to a local school or charity.
Some theorise that the Wren celebration has descended from Celtic mythology. The origin maybe a Samhain or Midwinter sacrifice, since in Celtic lore the Wren is a symbol of the past year and the wren is known for singing even in mid-winter, and sometimes explicitly called “Winter Wren.” Celtic names of the Wren (draouennig, drean, dreathan, dryw etc.) also suggest an association with druidic ritual. The tradition may also have been influenced by Scandinavian settlers during the Viking invasions prior to the tenth century. Various associated legends exist, such as a Wren being responsible for treachery against Irish soldiers who fought the maurading Viking invaders by beating its wings upon their shields, and for betraying the Christian martyr Saint Stephen after whom the day is named. This mythological association with duplicity is a possible reason why the bird was hunted by Wrenboys on St. Stephen’s Day and may explain why a pagan sacrificial tradition was continued into Christian times. Despite the abandonment of the Wren killing practice, devoted Wrenboys ensure that the gaelic tradition of celebrating the Wren continues today.
In 1955, Liam Clancy recorded “The Wran Song,” which was sung in Ireland by Wrenboys. In 1972, Steeleye Span recorded “The King” on “Please to See the King,” which is along similar lines, and they made another version, “The Cutty Wren,” on their album “Time.” While “Hunting the Wren” is on John Kirkpatrick’s album “Wassail!” and The Chieftains made a collection of Wrenboy tunes on “Bells of Dublin.”
I lived in Ireland for five years though, sadly, I never saw nor heard anyone mention the Wrenboy tradition, but perhaps that was just because I was in Dublin. These fine fellas above are the Bogside Wranboys of Ballygramore and can play many a tune to set your feet a-tapping!
Illustration copyright © Paul Bommer