Advent Calendar for Grown-ups
DECEMBER 23 Wren Boys
Wren Day, also known as Wren's Day, Hunt the Wren Day or the Hunting of the Wrens (Irish: Lá an Dreoilín) is traditionally celebrated on 26 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. Then the 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 that was celebrated by the Druids. These crowds are sometimes called wrenboys.
In past times, an actual bird was hunted by Wrenboys on St. Stephen's Day. 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, asked for donations from the townspeople. Often, the boys gave a feather from the bird to patrons for good luck. The money was used to host a dance for the town, held that night. The pole, decorated with ribbons, wreaths and flowers, as well as the Wren, was the center of the dance. Over time, the live bird was replaced with a fake one that is hidden, rather than chased. The band of young boys has expanded to include girls, and adults often join in. The money that is collected from the townspeople is usually donated to a school or charity. A celebration is still held around the decorated pole.
Some theorise that the Wren celebration has descended from Celtic mythology. Ultimately, the origin may be a Samhain or Midwinter sacrifice and/or celebration, as Celtic mythology considered the Wren a symbol of the past year (the European wren is known for its habit of 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 rituals. The tradition may also have been influenced by Scandinavian settlers during the Viking invasions of the 8th-10th Centuries. Various associated legends exist, such as a Wren being responsible for betraying Irish soldiers who fought the maurading Viking invaders by beating its wings on their shields, in the late first and early second millennia, and for betraying the Christian martyr Saint Stephen, after whom the day is named. This mythological association with treachery is a possible reason why the bird was hunted by Wrenboys on St. Stephen's Day, and/or why a pagan sacrificial tradition was continued in Christian times. Despite the abandonment of the wren killing practice, devoted Wrenboys continue to ensure that the gaelic tradition of celebrating the Wren continues.
In 1955 Liam Clancy recorded "The Wran Song" (the Wren 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. They made another version, "The Cutty Wren," on their album "Time." "Hunting the Wren" is on John Kirkpatrick's album "Wassail!" The Chieftains made a collection of Wrenboy tunes on "Bells of Dublin."
I lived in Ireland for five years and sadly never saw nor heard anyone mention the Wrenboy tradition in that time, but perhaps that was just being in Dublin. I did once have a very bizarre conversation with a couple of Rent Boys, but that's a different story.
These fine fellas shown are the Bogside Wranboys of Ballygramore and can play many a tune to set your feet a-tapping!
From Paul Bommer: Illustration, design & Print-making. Used by permission.