The Mysterious Tradition of the Wren Hunt

wren

How would you react if on the day after Christmas a small procession of boys in costume came to your door chanting some bizarre ditty? Although the group may indulge in song, you couldn’t confuse these kids with carolers. After all, besides wearing face paint and masks, they are carrying what appears to be a lifeless bird fastened to a pole.

Upon sight of such a strange mob, one’s first impulse, rather than opening the door, may be to call the authorities. Regardless of whichever decision one makes, you would eventually discover that these so-called “wren boys” are as harmless as Halloween trick-or-treaters. They’re simply asking for money, sometimes requested to bury a small, dead bird. Nevertheless, for the uninitiated, such a practice must seem incredibly odd.

Nothing Says “Thank You” like a Good-Luck Feather

Commonly referred to as the “Wren Hunt” or “Wren Day”, the custom of carrying a wren door-to-door during one of the first days following winter solstice dates back at least several centuries. It was popular in parts of Ireland and Britain (1). At one time, it was also practiced in areas of France (2) and even in St. John’s of Newfoundland, Canada (3).

The bird generally was not harmed or bothered throughout much of the year, except during the time of the Hunt. Boys usually would capture a wren on or around Christmas, with the bird often perishing in the process, though occasionally some would survive (4, 5, 6). On December 26th (St. Stephen’s Day and the usual date for Boxing Day in the United Kingdom), the adolescent boys and young men, donning disguises, would collect money from their stops throughout the village, to be used later to put on a party referred to in Ireland as a “Join” or “Mummer’s Ball” (7).

As mentioned before, the wren boys are known to sing during their money-gathering visits. One of their chants—many versions exist—goes in part something like this:

A glass of whiskey and a bottle of beer
Merry Christmas and a glad New Year.
So up with the kettle and down with the pan
And give us a penny to bury the wren. (8)

In the past, people who contributed to the boys’ funds were given a feather plucked from the wren, a token considered good luck. But retribution could await those folks who refused charity, for the boys, as a traditional means of cursing the person, would bury the dead bird on his or her property (9). Today, of course, this isn’t a problem, for real wrens fortunately are no longer used (10).

A Saint’s Stoning, an Army’s Betrayal, or a Fairy’s Curse?

As to the origins of this strange practice, they appear to be long buried in history. Some people attribute the custom as a reaction that later developed in response to St. Stephen’s murder, saying that the bird coincidentally disclosed the first Christian martyr to his enemies (11, 12). Do note, however, that Chapters 6 and 7 of Acts in the New Testament make no mention of the bird’s involvement in Stephen’s arrest or subsequent stoning. The only connection between the saint and the bird appears to be the timing of the hunt.

Some folks link the annual capture of the wren to the bird’s supposed role to another act of betrayal.  A host of parallel stories indicate that a wren inadvertently alerted invading enemy forces (e.g., Vikings, Cromwell’s army) to a surprise military attack by Irish defenders, resulting in calamity for the latter (13, 14). Many other such narratives are recorded. Depending on the story, the two factions consist of various parties. Nevertheless, the wren’s treacherous actions remain similar in the accounts.

One tale reported from the Isle of Man is remarkably different. This explanation instead blames the practice on a beautiful femme fatale, who led multitudes of men to drowning with her siren-like voice. In some cases, she is referred to by the name of “Cliona” (15). According to Joseph Train’s 19th-century account, a “knight-errant” was almost able to destroy the “fairy” or witch, but she used her supernatural powers to escape, transforming herself into a wren, a form to which she was subsequently condemned every year. This story, unlike others, explains the idea behind the wren feathers as a good luck charm. According to Train, one who possesses a feather from the fairy-wren supposedly will not suffer shipwreck for the following year (16). Thus, such a charm, particularly for coastal fishing communities, was understandably deemed an invaluable talisman.

Taking the Hunt into a New Century

Despite the prevalence of lore surrounding the Wren Hunt’s origins, the custom’s original source remains uncertain. Several scholars have attempted to link the practice to pre-Christian cultures, such as to the Celts. For instance, Ernest Ingersoll thought that Christian missionaries likely “condemned the little songster as a symbol of heathen rites, and encouraged their converts to kill it at the time of the annual Christmas feast as a sign of abnegation of Druidical connections” (17). Edward Armstrong’s The Wren and Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence’s Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol explore in-depth the possibility of this custom springing from ancient connections (18, 19). For the skeptical, though, the exact origins and rationale for the practice cannot be confirmed; and the dearth of available evidence beyond the past few centuries simply fosters speculation.

Tracing the practice’s origins—whether they be only a few centuries old or several millennia—does not pose a problem for the small number of people who today celebrate the Wren Hunt holiday. For them, the occasion is an opportunity to partake in an ancestral tradition with some added modern-day twists. Today in Sligo, Ireland, for example, writer Joe McGowan reports that few boys and young men stop by homes anymore; most instead go to pubs, retirement facilities, and the like to collect money (20). In other places, such as Ireland’s Dingle, the celebration has given way to Wren Day festivals and parades (21). For better or worse, the scenario described earlier of costumed boys and young men at front doorsteps has mostly become a thing of the past.

Sources:

  1. Howe, L. “The Burial of the Wren”, The Journal of American Folk-Lore, 6, No. 22, Jul. – Sep., 1893. p. 231.
  2. Howe, L.
  3. “Folk-lore Scrap-book”. “Hunting the Wren. — In the ‘Evening Herald,’ St. John’s, N. F.”, Rev. A. C. Waghorne. The Journal of American Folk-Lore, 6, No. 21, Apr. – Jun., 1893. p. 143.
  4. Howe, L.
  5. Rev. A. C. Waghorne.
  6. Bergen, F.D., “Burial and Holiday Customs and Beliefs of the Irish Peasantry”, The Journal of American Folk-Lore, 8, No. 28, Jan. – Mar., 1895. p. 24.
  7. McGowan, J. “Wrenboys in Ireland”, Sligo Heritage: http://www.sligoheritage.com/archwrenboys.htm.
  8. McGowan, J. [Note: English translation of some Irish dialect rendered here]
  9. Bergen, F.D..
  10. McGowan, J.
  11. McGowan, J.
  12. “Winter/Religious Festivals: Saint Stephen’s Day”, IrishFestivals.net: http://www.irishfestivals.net/saintstephensday.htm.
  13. McGowan, J.
  14. “Winter/Religious Festivals: Saint Stephen’s Day”, IrishFestivals.net.
  15. McGowan, J.
  16. Train, J. An Historical and Statistical Account of the Isle of Man, from the Earliest Times to the Present Date; with a View of its Ancient Laws, Peculiar Customs, and Popular Superstitions, Volume 2. Mary A. Quiggin, North Quay: London, Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., Stationers’ Hall Court. 1845. p. 125.
  17. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co. 1923. pp. 120-121.
  18. Armstrong, E.A. The Wren. 1st edition, New Naturalist monograph. London: Collins, 1955.
  19. Lawrence, E.A. Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol, 1st Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1997.
  20. McGowan, J.
  21. Bray, A., and O’Sullivan, M., Irish Independent. “Music / revelry with the Wren Boys in Dingle”, 12/27/2012. Experience the Dingle Peninsula: http://www.dinglepost.com/post/38941787608/music-revelry-with-the-wren-boys-in-dingle.
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