A taxidermy wren used for Hunt the Wren Day in Douglas, Isle of Man

Wren Day (Irish: Lá an Dreoilín), or Hunt the Wren Day (Manx: Shelg yn Dreean), is an Irish and Manx custom on 26 December, St. Stephen's Day. Traditionally, men and boys hunted a wren and placed it on top of a staff decorated with holly, ivy and ribbons, or displayed it in a decorated box on top of a pole. This was paraded around the neighbourhood by a group of 'Wrenboys'—typically dressed in straw masks, greenery and colourful motley clothing—who sang songs and played music in exchange for donations. On the Isle of Man, the people afterwards held a funeral for the wren and danced around the wren pole. Wren Day has been undergoing revival since the late 20th century, although the wren is no longer hunted and a stuffed wren is used instead. There were similar New Year traditions in parts of Britain and France until the nineteenth century. It is speculated that the tradition derives from Celtic paganism.

Irish tradition

Wrenboys on St. Stephen's Day in Dingle, Ireland.

Historically, and up until the mid-20th century in rural Ireland, groups of men and boys hunted a wren (also pronounced wran)[1] on St. Stephen's Day. They beat the bushes and hedges with sticks, and when a wren flew out they tried to down the bird by throwing sticks, stones and other objects at it.[2] Whomever killed the wren was believed to have good luck for a year.[2]

The dead wren was usually tied to the top of a long staff, which was decorated with holly, ivy and colourful ribbons.[3][4] A group of 'Wrenboys' or 'Droluns' (Irish: lucht an dreoilín), wearing straw masks and costumes, then carried it in procession around the neighbourhood. They sang songs about the wren—to the sound of drums, fifes and melodeons—going from house to house collecting money, food and drink.[3]

Today, the wren hunt no longer takes place, but Wren Day has survived or been revived in a few towns and villages, such as Dingle in County Kerry. Groups of Wrenboys hold small parades and carry around a stuffed or fake wren.[2][5] They usually collect money for charity or to host a dance or "Wren Ball" for the town.[4]

The Wrenboys have some similarities with the skeklers of Shetland.[6]

Song

Whilst going from house to house, the Wrenboys would sing a song, of which there are many variations, asking for donations. One variation sung in Edmondstown, County Dublin ran as such (the last two lines of which are used in several festive British begging songs and rhymes including "Christmas is Coming"):

The wren the wren the king of all birds
St Stephen's Day was caught in the furze
Her clothes were all torn- her shoes were all worn
Up with the kettle and down with the pan
Give us a penny to bury the "wran"
If you haven't a penny, a halfpenny will do
If you haven't a halfpenny, God bless you![7]

In a 1978 recording, the sean-nós singer Seosamh Ó hÉanaí discusses Wren Day activities and the lore behind the tradition. He sings a macaronic, English-Irish text: "Dreoilín, dreoilín, Rí na nÉan (Wren, wren, King of Birds)".[8]

Manx tradition

Main article: Hunt the Wren

Hunt the Wren on the sand at Port St Mary, 2016

Traditionally, a wren was hunted on the Isle of Man every St. Stephen's Day, as in Ireland.[9] Usually, the wren's body would be hung inside a ball-shaped frame made from two wreaths of holly or ivy, called the 'Wren Bush', which may be decorated with ribbons.[9] In some villages, the wren's body was displayed in a small wooden box with windows, decorated with greenery and ribbons, called the 'Wren House'.[9] These Wren Bushes or Wren Houses were held aloft on poles and taken around the neighbourhood by 'wrenboys', some of whom were decked in greenery or flew coloured banners.[9] Singing "Hunt the Wren" (Shelg yn Dreean) and beating drums, they went from house to house asking for coins. When a coin was given, the donor might receive a feather from the wren. These feathers were kept or worn as an amulet to guard against supernatural harm and witchcraft.[9]

At the end of the day, a funeral was held for the wren and it was buried at the parish church by torchlight.[9] George Waldron recorded in 1731 that they buried the wren "with a whimsical kind of solemnity, singing dirges over her in the Manx language".[9] According to folklorist Mona Douglas, afterwards a living wren was placed in a cage inside the Wren Bush and the people danced around it. This wren was then set free, before the bush was burned on the dead wren's grave.[9] Manx folklore held that the wren's spirit would be reborn each year.[9] According to Douglas, in the eighteenth century the Manx church were hostile to the ceremony, but knew they could not prevent it. She wrote that when the group arrived at the church with the sacrificed wren, the vicar "took good care to absent himself from the proceedings, for they were frowned upon by the church at that time as being Pagan and superstitious".[9]

The tradition was revived on the Isle of Man during the 1990s. Today, it mainly involves music, singing and dancing around a decorated Wren Bush or Wren Pole in which a stuffed or fake wren is placed.[10][11]

Origin

Wrenboys in Ramsey, Isle of Man, 1904

The wren celebration may have originated from Celtic mythology.[12] Ultimately, the origin may be a Samhain or midwinter sacrifice 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 its name in the Netherlands, "winter king," reflects this); Celtic names of the wren (draouennig, drean, dreathan, dryw etc.) also suggest an association with druidic rituals.[according to whom?]

Lleu Llaw Gyffes, a Welsh hero, wins his name by hitting or killing a wren. He strikes a wren "between the tendon and the bone of its leg", causing Arianrhod, his mother, to say "it is with a skillful hand that the fair-haired one has hit it". At that Gwydion, his foster father, reveals himself, saying Lleu Llaw Gyffes; "the fair-haired one with the skillful hand" is his name now".[check quotation syntax]

In the Isle of Man, the hunting of the wren (shelg yn drean)[what language is this?] is associated with an ancient enchantress or 'queen of the fairies' (or goddess) named 'Tehi Tegi' which translates to something like 'beautiful gatherer' in Brythonic (the Manx spoke Brythonic before they switched to Gaelic). The story goes that Tehi Tegi was so beautiful that all the men of the Island followed her around in hope of marrying her, and neglected their homes and fields. Tehi Tegi led her suitors to the river and then drowned them. She was confronted, but transforned into a wren and escaped. She was banished from the Island but returns once a year, when she is hunted.[13][14]

Parallel traditions

The typical wren hunt occurred in Ireland, the Isle of Man, Wales, England and France, "areas where Celtic tradition was firmly entrenched".[15] Although there was some regional variation, the basic pattern of the ritual was the same wherever it occurred.[15] In the British Isles and Ireland, the wren hunt was usually held on St. Stephen's Day, but wren hunts also took place on Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, and Twelfth Day (5 January).[16] By the early 20th century, industrialization and changing beliefs had begun to erode the tradition.[17]

Wales

In Wales, the tradition of 'hunting the wren' (Hela'r Dryw)[what language is this?] took place every Twelfth Day, and the practice continued in Pembrokeshire until the beginning of the twentieth century.[18] Similarly to some Manx traditions, in Wales the dead wren was typically placed in a "Wren House" – a small wooden box with windows, decorated with greenery and ribbons – which was then carried around the neighbourhood by "wren bearers".[19] In some cases, "wrenboys" caught a live wren and placed it in the Wren House, and then the wrenboys called on people to make offerings to the little "king" until the end of the day, when the bird was set free.[20]

England

The tradition was found in parts of England, but it gradually died out or was put down by the authorities by the mid-nineteenth century.[18] In the late 20th century, Pete Jennings and the Old Glory Molly Dancers revived the wren hunt in Suffolk, and it has been performed in Middleton on the evening of every Boxing Day since 1994.[21]

France

A similar tradition is performed on the first Sunday of December in parts of Southern France, including Carcassonne.[22] James George Frazer describes in his The Golden Bough a wren-hunting ritual in Carcassonne. The Fête du Roi de l'Oiseau, first recorded in 1524 at Puy-en-Velay, is still active.[23]

Galicia

In Galicia, Spain, the Caceria do rei Charlo (Chase of King Charles) was performed. The inhabitants of Vilanova de Lourenzá would chase down a wren and, after tying it to a pole, would parade it and show it to the abbot of the local monastery, who would then offer them food and drink and appoint two leaders of the local town council out of the four candidates proposed by townsmen. This tradition has been recorded since the 16th century.[24] It is unclear which specific date this tradition was performed on; sources call it "New Year's Day", which may not refer to the New Year on the Gregorian calendar but instead to the day after Christmas, which at that time was considered the end of the year.[25]

Popular songs

In 1955 Liam Clancy recorded "The Wran Song" ("The Wren Song"), which was sung in Ireland by wrenboys.[26] In 1972 Steeleye Span recorded "The King" on Please to See the King, which also reflects the tradition; on their album Time they made another version, "The Cutty Wren", named after the traditional English folk song. "Hunting the Wren" appears on John Kirkpatrick's album Wassail!. The Chieftains made a collection of wrenboy tunes on The Bells of Dublin. In the song "The Boys of Barr na Sráide", which is based on a poem by Sigerson Clifford, the wren hunt is also a prominent theme. Lankum's 2019 album The Livelong Day includes a track called "Hunting the Wren" that references several of the legends and practices connected with Wren Day.

"The Wren [Wran] Song" is also on the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem's 1995 album Ain't It Grand Boys: A Collection of Unissued Gems, as the last song in "Children's Medley".[27]

See also

References

  1. ^ "Christmas and New Year in Ireland Long Ago". Ballinagree.freeservers.com. Retrieved 15 January 2018.
  2. ^ a b c Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood (1997). Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol. University of Tennessee Press. pp. 46–48, 60–63.
  3. ^ a b Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood (1997). Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol. University of Tennessee Press. pp. 55–56.
  4. ^ a b Eveleth, Rose. "The Irish Used to Celebrate the Day After Christmas by Killing Wrens". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 14 March 2021.
  5. ^ "Wren Day: 'Those that went before us kept it going from generation to generation'". The Irish Times.
  6. ^ Smith, Laura. "The Honest Truth: A spooky step back in time to skekling, Shetland's ancient form of Halloween guising". The Sunday Post. Retrieved 14 March 2021.
  7. ^ The Schools' Collection, Volume 0797, Page 44
  8. ^ "Lore About the Wren". Cartlanna Sheosaimh Uí Éanaí. 2 March 1978. Retrieved 7 October 2021.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood (1997). Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol. University of Tennessee Press. pp. 48–53.
  10. ^ Hunting the Wren. BBC Isle of Man.
  11. ^ "Hunt the Wren: Ancient Manx tradition grows in popularity". BBC News. 26 December 2021.
  12. ^ The European symbolic hunting of the Eurasian wren is investigated by Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence, Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol (University of Tennessee) 1997.
  13. ^ "Tehi Tegi". Atlanticreligion.com. 25 October 2013. Retrieved 15 January 2018.
  14. ^ Hunting the Wren, bbc.co.uk, 23 Dec 2005
  15. ^ a b Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood (1997). Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol. University of Tennessee Press. p. 60.
  16. ^ Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood (1997). Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol. University of Tennessee Press. p. 47.
  17. ^ Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood (1997). Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol. University of Tennessee Press. p. 63.
  18. ^ a b Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood (1997). Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol. University of Tennessee Press. p. 66.
  19. ^ Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood (1997). Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol. University of Tennessee Press. p. 53.
  20. ^ Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood (1997). Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol. University of Tennessee Press. p. 59.
  21. ^ Old Glory & The Cutty Wren by Pete Jennings.
  22. ^ The Golden Bough by James George Frazer, NuVision Publications, LLC, 2006, ISBN 1-59547-959-7, ISBN 978-1-59547-959-4. pp.294-295
  23. ^ "Fête du Roi de l'Oiseau". Lonely Planet. Retrieved 13 April 2020.
  24. ^ FERNANDO ALONSO ROMERO. "La cacería del reyezuelo: análisis de una cacería ancestral en los países célticos" (PDF). Anuariobrigantino.betanzos.net. Retrieved 15 January 2018.
  25. ^ "La cacería del reyezuelo: análisis de una cacería ancestral en los países célticos" by Fernando Alonso Romero at Anuario Brigantino, issue 24, 2001
  26. ^ Example:"The Wren The Wren", Celtic Tradition, Amiga, 1987.
  27. ^ "Ain't it Grand Boys: A Collection of Unissued Gems", the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Columbia Records, 1995. Children's Medley, ibid.