The day after Christmas, December 26, was a special time of celebration on the calendar in Ireland. It is referred to as Wren’s Day and others call it St. Stephen’s Day. It has an interesting past.
It began with the time of the Celtic Druids, and it picked up other customs over time. The Wren in Gaelic is called Sraid Eoin or the Druids bird. It could soar to the highest heights and scuttle around in the underbrush. It was considered cunning, wise, and a connection with the divine. It nested in the oak trees in Ireland. Anyone who disturbed a Wren nest risked their home being destroyed by nature. Since Wren’s ate insects, they kept crops safe, and hearing it sing was also considered a good omen. It was really against custom to do anything bad to the Wren.
In times past, Winter was a time to be afraid. The days were shorter and it was darker. It called for making a sacrifice to convince the Sun to come out longer and for it to be warm again. Since the Wren was such a celebrated entity, it made sense that it would be a great sacrifice.
A Druid would trap and kill the bird, and place it on top of a pole with holly which was considered a sacred bush. They would parade the offering about the settlement with lots of ceremony and ritual. Its innocent spirit would take the Druid’s cry for safe passage through the winter months to the Gods.
Once the Christian religion arrived in Ireland, the Church did not like the idea of Druid beliefs. The people were not willing to give up the ritual that had done a very good job of keeping them safe for so long.
Similar to replacing the holiday of Samhain with All Hallows, Rome decided that the day after Christmas would be dedicated to St. Stephen. To change this idea that the Wren was associated with the divinity and peace, the bird was then denounced by them and St. Stephen was to be celebrated instead. The bird was thought to be the agent whose chirping lead authorities to St. Stephen which then lead to death by stoning him.
In Ireland, Wren Day and St. Stephen’s day then merged over time which did not go well for the Wren. Boys would go out Wren hunting and stoning them to death and then they would hang the bird by its leg in a circle of branches on a pole. They would be dressed in costumes that they made out of straw. They brought the bird from house to house begging for food.
Some preferred a cork with feathers so that no Wrens would be killed in sacrifice and the holiday could continue on. They would carry toy birds on a bier that had been decorated, and they would decorate themselves with colored pieces of cloth and ribbons on their clothes.
Today, the holiday has given way to a much more human practice of a stuffed toy Wren, an image of the bird or a little coffin box. The greener houses will build birdhouses and place them outdoors to invite the sacred bird into their yard and live in their gardens. They help eat the insects and protect gardens as they once protected crops years ago.
By the times of the Middle Ages, December 26, was more commonly St. Stephen’s day than Wren day and evolved to be a day when those of higher status gave to the less fortunate. This charity took place in several ways.
Everyone on the estate would celebrate Christmas. Before the serfs on the manor returned to their homes, they would get supplies needed from the landowner. These could be things like fabric and seed. They might even get clothes. Merchants gave gifts too, often money. This is what lead to tipping today.
Traditionally, as well, the money that had been collected by the Wren Boys was spent on a gathering called “Join.” They would choose a house to celebrate and a barrel of alcohol was brought for the men and wine for the women. They would have jam, cake, and bread, as well as other various food items. It was a great night of dancing and music that lasted the whole night.
WREN BOY TRADITIONS IN OTHER COUNTRIES
The Wren boy tradition was also popular in France, the Isle of Man, and England. There were certainly differences as the Wren was not hunted in Scotland but was in England. In France, the first person to kill a Wren was considered the King! It was considered very unlucky to kill a Wren at any other time or to do any destruction or its nest. Only the ritual killing on St. Stephen’s day was allowed. Today where the tradition is still practiced, a fake bird is used.
In Wren boy tradition in other countries, a play was put on that was thought to be very ancient. A captain is dressed and carries a sword. There is another character that acts as a female jester. A wooden frame that looked like a horse which was called a white mare, was carried on the shoulders. In some places, the names are given, like the Mummers, and a mock battle of wooden swords and large bladders tied to sticks would take place.
Masks are an important tradition in Mumming and Wren’s day in other countries. There is a story in the 1900s of two sets of wren boys going out, one of five to fifteen-year-olds and another of adults. The younger children went out in woman’s clothes and painted faces. They went along the road knocking on doors collecting money.
The adults were more professional in their attire. They went out in batches of ten or so and dressed in trousers made of curtain cloth or calico. They had coats of this same material. They wore hats with feathers or red handkerchiefs that were worn on the head. They wore masks to conceal their face. Sometimes the hat had horse hair. In compliance with the laws of the time period the man collecting the money did not wear a mask.
The group would pretend to have a wren in a box nailed to the top of a stick which was decorated. There was no bird there. Sometimes it was a mouse or even a robin. Usually, it was just moss or hay. The group that could actually have a wren was celebrated as they were the hardest to catch. They would stand back as the ladies of the house would try to see if there was really a wren. If you were caught without a wren and had a substitute you were shamed.
Dancers and musicians went along. They went through the neighborhoods and traveled through the houses. They collected money as they were, and they recited a rhyme while they went. The song varied from place to place but was generally a variation of:
The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze.
His body is little but his family is great
So rise up landlady and give us a trate.
And if your trate be of the best
Your soul in heaven can find its rest.
And if your trate be of the small
It won’t plaze the boys at all.
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 wran.