Published: 18-03-2010, 10:07

Wren Hunt

In rural communities of ENGLAND, IRELAND, FRANCE, and WALES, the day after Christmas once witnessed a ritualized attack on one of the region’s tiniest and most harmless birds: the wren. Although this practice declined to near extinction during the twentieth century, the wren still figures as a minor CHRISTMAS SYMBOL, appearing on CHRISTMAS CARDS, ORNAMENTS, and other seasonal decorations.

In some locales early accounts of the “wren hunt” or “the hunting of the wren” give Christmas or Christmas Eve as the date of the ceremony. Eventually, however, these local traditions gravitated to the day after Christmas, ST. STEPHEN’S DAY, which was the more commonly accepted date for the hunt. On this day bands of men and boys would range the countryside scouring the brush in search of a wren. After spotting one of the dainty brown birds the group flushed it out of the bushes using sticks or stones to stun and, eventually, kill it. The hunting party might chase the bird for hours before they succeeded in this task. In some areas the hunters used bow and arrows or even pistols to bring down their diminutive prey. Afterwards, the band trooped back to town displaying their trophy. The man or boy who succeeded in finally killing the bird was lauded as the hero of the day.
The second phase of the wren hunt began when the team returned to town. The group devised a decorative display for the tiny carcass. In some areas of France the bird was nailed to a pole decorated with ribbons and GREENERY. On the Isle of Man it was suspended from the intersection of two hoops entwined with greenery, ribbons, foil, and other decorative items. The finished display was known as a “wren bush.” The Welsh typically built a wren house, a small wooden box, in which to carry the bird.
After securing the dead bird amidst these trappings, the wren boys then paraded through the streets of town. In some areas they wore masks and unusual apparel, often dressing in women’s or girls’ clothing (see also MUMMING). At each house they visited they displayed their catch, sang songs about the wren hunt, and asked for coins, food, or drink in return. The following verses from various wren hunt songs were often included in these performances:

The wren, the wren, the King of all birds
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 [Hutton, 1996, 98].

We hunted the wren for Robbin the Bobbin
We hunted the wren for Jack of the Can,
We hunted the wren for Robbin the Bobbin
We hunted the wren for everyman [Buday, 1992,104].

On the Isle of Man the wren boys gave householders a wren feather, thought to bring good luck for the coming year, in exchange for a donation of coins. In many places, however, if householders refused a small GIFT to the wren boys, the boys sang insulting songs at the doorstep before moving on. After the day’s ceremonies were over, the wren boys usually took time to bury the wren. In some locales these burials took the form of mock funerals.
In a few places the traditional wren hunt did not demand the death of the bird. In Wales’ Pembrokeshire region, the wren boys captured and displayed a live bird. In general, the Scots did not participate in the wren hunt, but in Galloway a ceremony known as the “Deckan of the Wren” occurred on the morning of New Year’s Day. The men caught, rather than killed, a wren, decorated it with ribbons, then let it go.

Folklorists disagree about the origins of this custom. Some experts argue that the wren hunt derives from the beliefs and practices of ancient societies. A number of these thinkers propose that the custom grew out of old Celtic beliefs about wrens. They speculate that as Christianity entrenched itself in Britain and Ireland, the killing of the wren came to represent the killing of pagan religious practices. Some evidence suggests that the Celts associated the bird with wisdom and prophecy. In one old Irish text, the wren was referred to as the “magus bird,” a bird whose actions served as omens of the future. In another, it is claimed that the Celtic word for wren can be traced back to a contraction of the old Celtic words for “druid’s bird.”
Others who believe in the ancient roots of the custom link it to a different set of beliefs and practices. They find similarities between the wren hunt and the ancient European and Near Eastern custom of sacrificing a king or other royal figure to the gods. When ordinary people took on this sacrificial role they were treated as kings for a brief while before their execution. Interestingly enough, European folklore concerning the wren often depicts the tiny creature as a king. Moreover, the image of the wren as king emerges as a persistent theme in wren hunt lore. The folk verses cited above provide an example.

None of these speculations can be proven, however. The fact that the earliest accounts of the tradition in Britain and Ireland date back to the early eighteenth century has led at least one researcher to conclude that the custom must be of relatively modern origin and cannot have been in continual practice since ancient times. Moreover, this writer reminds us that efforts of the wren boys were directed toward the end result of collecting money and food. He notes that the hunting of the wren began to decline in the late nineteenth century, along with other begging traditions such as boxing (see BOXING DAY), mumming, and Thomasing (see ST.THOMAS’S DAY).
Many of the historical documents describing the wren hunt express concern over the cruel fate dealt to the innocent and inoffensive bird. The wren hunt was condemned in France after the Revolution, briefly reinstated, and then banned again around 1830. Irish and English authorities condemned the custom in the middle of the nineteenth century. In spite of this opposition, the wren hunt continued in some places. In Wales the custom lingered until around the turn of the century.

Throughout Ireland the practice persisted until the mid-twentieth century. It continued in southern Ireland, and in recent times has even enjoyed a bit of a revival. Some people continue to wear the traditional straw suits for the event, though a dummy wren is usually substituted for a dead bird. The Irish have made other changes to the ancient custom as well. Nowadays both boys and girls, and even adults, may join in the wren hunt. Often the boys dress as women and the girls as men. They perform folk songs, folk dances, or even bits of mummers’plays at each house on their route. In West Kerry, a PANTOMIME horse, or hobby horse, leads the wren hunt procession. The wren hunters usually donate the money given to them by householders in return for these performances to a civic cause. Contributions may also be used to fund a St. Stephen’s Day “Wren Dance” to which the neighborhood is invited.
On the Isle of Man the wren boys killed their last wren in the early twentieth century. The ceremony continued in at least one location on the island, however, using token wrens. A recent revival of interest in Manx folk traditions has led to a renewal of this revised version of the old seasonal custom.

A number of legends purporting to explain the yearly persecution of the wren depict the little bird as a betrayer of various Christian leaders. In one legend JESUS is fleeing his persecutors, who are tracking him by the trail of blood dripping from his wounds. A ROBIN sees the drops of blood and flutters down to erase these tracks. A field of wheat miraculously springs up in the barren field over which Jesus has walked. When the pursuing soldiers encounter this field they ask the robin if a man has walked through the field recently. The robin answers, “Not since the wheat was planted.” This answer temporarily fools the soldiers until a wren tells them that the wheat was planted only yesterday. The soldiers then hurry forward and capture Jesus.
In another legend, a wren foils St. Stephen’s escape from his captors. In one variation of the tale, the wren’s song wakens the guards just as Stephen is about to break free. In another, chirping wrens give away the saint’s hiding place.
An Irish legend depicts the bird as a traitor to the cause of Irish political freedom who enjoys warning foreign invaders of Irish military maneuvers. In one version of the tale, the wren hops up and down on a drum in order to alert the Danes that the Irish are about to attack. In another, the wren tells Oliver Cromwell’s forces of the impending Irish attack.
In spite of the role played by the wren in these legends, European folklore generally portrays the wren in a positive light. In addition to a widespread designation as the king of birds, much lore depicted the wren as a clever animal who uses her intelligence to counteract the disadvantages of her small size. In many areas people thought the bird brought good luck, and folk traditions warned against disturbing or harming the wren in any way. In the British Isles, the wren was especially beloved. In “Auguries of Innocence” (1803) the English poet William Blake (1757-1827) wrote:
He who shall hurt the little wren Shall never be beloved by men.
Why then did the wren become the object of this yearly hunt? Why did the hunt take place on St. Stephen’s Day? Perhaps the stoning of the wren, a beloved bird, symbolized the stoning of Stephen, a beloved saint. Or perhaps the yearly lifting of sanctions against harming the wren served to reinforce these sanctions during the rest of the year. Over a century of research by folklorists has produced many fascinating speculations, but no definitive answers to these questions.
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