December 26th is the Feast Day of St Stephen, and in Ireland it’s celebrated as Lá Fhéile Stiofán or Lá an Dreoilín, meaning the Day of the Wren (pronounced ‘ran’) or Wren’s Day.
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give us a treat…
Mrs. Clancy’s a very good woman,
a very good woman, a very good woman,
Mrs. Clancy’s a very good woman,
She give us a penny to bury the wren…
Traditional verse sung on December 26th, Lá an Dreoilín, the Wren’s Day, in Ireland
Wren’s Day festivities aren’t as widespread as in the auld days, but in parts of Ireland there are Mummer’s Fests and “hunting the wren” that still go on.
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. Depending on the region of the country, they were called Wrenboys, Mummers or Strawboys. The dead bird was tied to the top of a pole or holly bush, which was decorated with ribbons or colored paper, and carried door to door by the boys, looking for small coins (ostensibly, to pay for the bird’s funeral or wake) in exchange for a feather or a good wish. The money was used to host a dance for the town that night, with the decorated pole being the center of the dance.
Today, the live bird is no longer killed; it has been 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, dressed in strange costumes of straw and thatch or garish colors. The money that is collected from the townspeople now is usually donated to a school or charity. A celebration is still held around the decorated pole, however, and may be a big area-wide event or just a small local one, depending upon custom.
How did a little ‘wran’ become the object of such widespread pursuit and revelry? Scholars theorize that Wren Day has its origins in ancient Celtic pagan rituals of sacrifice and celebration at midwinter, with the wren symbolizing the old year. Celtic names of the Wren (draouennig, drean, dreathan, dryw etc.) also suggest an association with druidic rituals. Indeed, some believe, the Gaelic word for wren – dreoilín – derives from two words, draoi ean, or Druid bird. The wren was considered the ‘King of all birds’ in Celtic mythology. Legend has it that all the birds had a contest to see who could fly the highest, with the eagle sure to be the winner. The clever wren flew higher than the eagle by sitting on the eagle’s back as it soared upwards; the wren won the contest by flying even higher once the eagle tired.
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. Another legend says the wren, a tiny bird with a loud singing voice, gave away St Stephen’s location, leading to the death of the martyr.
There is no clear answer about the origins of Wren Day, but it continues to be celebrated every year as one of Ireland’s nine official public holidays.
Here are a few videos of traditional Wren Day festivities in Ireland:
From West Clare, trad music and lively step dance:
From the Clancy Brothers–a funny explanation of the Wren Day traditions and the songread more