One of Ireland's unique and darker traditions, celebrated on December 26th, relates to killing a small bird called the wren in revenge for betraying St Stephen. Nowadays the day after Christmas, it is traditional in Ireland to go on a quest for a little bird and then affix it to the top of a pole. The Irish observe Saint Stephen's Day, also known as Wren Day, in this manner.
Why do the Irish Hunt the wren?
On the 26th of December, there is a celebration of one of Ireland's peculiar and more sinister customs, which involves the killing of a tiny bird as an act of retribution for betraying Saint Stephen. It is claimed that the Irish practice known as "Hunting the Wren" dates back to a period before the Christian era.
"Hunting the Wren" is an Irish tradition that is believed to pre-date Christian times. It sounds pretty cruel, where basically the tiny bird is captured, killed, and tied to a pole. Local musicians and dancers would then dress in garish disguises and go house to house collecting money, food, and drink for a party. Woe betide the house that did not donate to the cause “ the wren " could be buried outside their door which would bring 12 months of bad luck!
What is the wren boy procession?
The ambush was unsuccessful, and as a result, the wren came to be known as "The Devil's Bird." This incident was commemorated on Stephen's Day each year by a procession of local youths who marched through town dressed in archaic costumes of the period and with their faces blackened. They carried holly and a dead wren that was impaled on top of a pole as they made their way through the town.
What is the Difference Between the Strawboys and the Wren Boys
What are the wren boys in Ireland?
In the distant past in Ireland, young boys and adults were given the name "The Wren Boys" for their habit of going into the forest. They would search for a wren, then kill it, and finally, they would carry the wren's body through the streets of the town on a pole that had been adorned. Charming eh? There is a significant amount of conjecture on the origin of this tradition.
What were straw boys?
Strawboys, groups of partygoers who dress up in straw costumes and wear conical straw hats over their faces, have traditionally attended weddings in order to dance with the bride and other women while entertaining guests with music, songs, and jokes. Strawboys wear straw costumes and wear straw hats over their faces. It was thought that the newlyweds would have an increase in good fortune, riches, and health as a result of their presence.
King of the Birds or Traitor of Saints??
The wren is considered the "King of the Birds" and is also associated with the old year. It was said that capturing the bird alive would herald a new and prosperous year. As the king of the birds, the wren occupied a prominent position in the druidic pagan religion. Sailors and fishermen believed that those who possessed a wren feather would never be shipwrecked.
So Why is the wren called the king of the birds?
The name is derived from an implication that the bird is very intelligent. As part of a competition to see which bird could soar the furthest, a wren managed to conceal itself inside the feathers of an eagle's wing. As the eagle continued to fly far above all of the other birds, the wren suddenly emerged from its hiding place, flew even higher, and proclaimed himself to be the king of all the birds.
What is the rhyme about the wren?
The popular wren rhyme goes: The wren, the wren, the King of all birds, St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze.
Legend has it that the wren was a small feathered traitor, but legend cannot agree if this dubious reputation was earned by betraying a saint's hiding place, ruining a secret attack by Irish warriors, or by being a fairy seductress - all intriguing in their own right. One version of the story tells that St Stephen was hiding in a bush from his enemies, only for his hiding to be revealed by the chattering of a wren. Another maintains that in the 700s during the Viking troubles, when Irish warriors crept up on the Danes to attack, a little wren beat out a warning by picking crumbs from the drum held by a sleeping Viking. And lastly, there was a fairy woman called Cliona was in the habit of luring local men to a watery grave. She had the power to turn herself into, you've guessed it, a wren.
An Irish St. Stephen's Day Tradition, the feast of St. Stephen, who was the first Christian martyr, is celebrated on December 26th. Connecting the Wren Boys ritual, known as Lá an Dreoilín, is the day when the traitor wren betrayed St. Stephen is a good example of how Ireland's pagan traditions were merged with Christianity (it also happened with St Brigid)
The Wren Poem
The Wren, the Wren the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's day, he was caught in the furze.
Although he is little, his honor is great,
Rise up, kind sir, and give us a trate.
We followed this Wren ten miles or more
Through hedges and ditches and heaps of snow,
We up with our wattles and gave him a fall
And brought him here to show you all.
For we are the boys that came your way
To bury the Wren on Saint Stephen's Day,
So up with the kettle and down with the pan!
Give us some help for to bury the Wren!
Nowadays, a more humane Wren Boys is still practiced in mainly rural areas, they don't kill the wren anymore, thank goodness. The tradition consists of "hunting" a fake wren and putting it on top of a decorated pole. Crowds of mummers or straw boys celebrate the wren by dressing up in masks, straw suits, and colorful motley clothing and, accompanied by céilí music bands, parade through the towns and villages. A celebration is still held around the decorated pole and the money that is collected from the townspeople is now donated to a school or charity.
Cautionary word of warning to all wrens - a wren's feather is still thought to bring good luck, so maybe lie low around Christmas time.