Wren Day: A Very Irish Christmas Tradition
The traditional Irish Christmas is very similar to the one we enjoy in the UK, with only a couple of differences. Families in Ireland will tuck into turkey and ham with all the trimmings on the big day, washed down with copious amounts of alcohol, before that slump on the sofa in front of the box. However, there is one tradition which is exclusive to the Emerald Isle: ‘Wren Day’.
This ancient tradition takes place on Boxing Day (known as ‘St Stephen’s Day’ in Ireland) and makes for quite an arresting sight. Up until the beginning of the 20th century, an actual wren was hunted and killed for this ceremony, although these days a model is used instead. ‘Wren Boys’ dress up in straw costumes and parade through the streets of the town, with the ‘Wren Captain’ holding the little bird (or the model of the wren) aloft in front of him. A procession takes place through the town, with lots of music and singing as an accompaniment. Generally, money will be collected from the watching crowds by one of the Wren Boys, with the proceeds going to a local charity.
The origins of Wren Day are somewhat murky, as you might expect from a tradition such as this one. The wren is the smallest bird native to Ireland, so you may well wonder why this little creature was selected as the sacrificial victim when this ceremony began. Some believe that the ancient Celts may have been responsible, as they considered the wren to represent the year that has just passed. Another theory has it that the wren was chosen due to its status as ‘king of the birds’. As the myths have it, God wished to know which was the king of the birds, so challenged all of them to fly as high as they could. Soon only the eagle was left, until the wren appeared from its hiding place under the eagle’s wing to claim the crown.
This would explain why the following rhyme is often chanted on Wren Day: "The wren, the wren, the King of All Birds, St. Stephen's Night got caught in the furze."
Earlier incarnations of Wren Day were all about partying and having a good time, and certainly that same spirit endures to this day. Money raised in early Wren Days was used to organise a dance, rather than going to charity, but the procession will often wind up in a local pub even today. This day is not as widely practiced as was the case a hundred years ago, but if you make the trip to Dingle in the South West of the country on the 26th of December then you will be able to see Wren Day in action.