St. Stephen’s Day
St. Stephen’s Day honors the first Christian martyr, stoned to death shortly after the Crucifixion. St. Stephen’s Day is a national holiday in Ireland, celebrated on December 26th, but the celebrations have little connection to the Saint.
In Ireland, St. Stephen’s Day is the day for “Hunting the Wren” or “Going on the Wren.” Originally, groups of small boys would hunt for a wren, and then chase the bird until they either caught it or it died from exhaustion. The dead bird was tied to the top of a pole or holly bush, which was decorated with ribbons or colored paper.
Early in the morning of St. Stephen’s Day, the wren was carried from house to house by the boys, who wore straw masks or blackened their faces with burnt cork, and dressed in old clothes (often women’s dresses.) At each house, the boys sing the Wren Boys’ song. There are many versions and variations of this song, including the following:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Although he is little, his family is great,
I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.
My box would speak, if it had but a tongue,
And two or three shillings, would do it not wrong,
Sing holly, sing ivy–sing ivy, sing holly,
A drop just to drink, it would drown melancholy.
And if you draw it of the best,
I hope in heaven your soul will rest;
But if you draw it of the small,
It won’t agree with these wren boys at all.
Sometimes those who gave money were given a feather from the wren for good luck. The money collected by the Wren Boys was used to hold a dance for the whole village.
There are different legends about the origin of this custom. One is that St. Stephen, hiding from his enemies in a bush, was betrayed by a chattering wren. The wren, like St. Stephen, should be hunted down and stoned to death. Another legend holds that during the Viking raids of the 700’s, Irish soldiers were betrayed by a wren as they were sneaking up on a Viking camp in the dead of night. A wren began to eat breadcrumbs left on the head of a drum, and the rat-a-tat-tat of its beak woke the drummer, who sounded the alarm and woke the camp, leading to the defeat of the Irish soldiers and the continuing persecution of the wren.
The pursuit and capture of the wren is also related to the pagan custom of sacrificing a sacred symbol at year’s end. In contrast to the legends of the wren as betrayer, the wren has also been revered in Ireland as the “king of the birds.” An Irish folktale tells of a contest held among birds to see which could fly the highest and should be accorded this title. The eagle soared higher than any other bird, but lost the contest when a clever wren, who had been hiding on the back of the eagle, flew off the eagle and soared higher in the sky.
The custom of going on the wren fell into disfavor around the turn of the century, and died out completely in most parts of Ireland, but has been revived throughout much of the country. Wrens are no longer killed– an artificial wren may be used, or a real wren may be carried about in a cage.The “Wren Boys” now include girls, and adults often accompany the young people. Folk costumes and traditional music and dancing are often part of going on the wren, and the money collected is often used for community or school projects.
The Wren Song
- Different versions of the wren song from the Digital Tradition Folksong Database
Please to See the King | The Wren Song | Cutty Wren
- Hunting the Wren on Dingle Peninsula — An article by Peter Wood, with photography of the Dingle Wren by Christy McNamara
Good King Wenceslaus
- Good King Wenceslas — The Reverend Ed Hird tells the story behind the song
- Wenceslas: A Goodhearted King And His Popular Carol — Classical music critic, Tom Manoff, explores the origins of this popular Christmas Carol in this story from NPR’s All Things Considered, which includes audio clips of different versions of the carol throughout history.