The day after Christmas is known as Wren Day in Ireland. Dressing up in straw costumes and parading around town or the countryside on Saint Stephen’s Day, is part of our ancient Irish heritage, especially in rural parts of the country.
When I was growing up in Ireland my father would always recite a little rhyme on the 26th of December.
It went like this …
“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day got caught in the furze,
Although he was little, his honor was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a trate.
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wran.”
My father told stories of dressing up as a young boy in County Cork on December 26th, to go on the wren or “on the wran” as he pronounced it. We sat intrigued as he told us of straw costumes decorated with ribbons, chasing birds, dancing and singing for neighbors, and asking for pennies to help bury the wren.
And so today, on the day after Christmas, I thought we might explore this Irish Christmas tradition of Wren Day a little further.
Lá an Dreoilín:
In the Irish language the day after Christmas is called Lá an Dreoilín (pronounced law on droh-leen) which literally means the day of the wren.
Celebrating Wren Day is a very old Irish tradition, practiced throughout most of rural Ireland in days gone by. The only exception was parts of northern Ulster where Celtic heritage held less sway.
In the days coming up to Christmas in years gone by, Irish boys searched the hedgerows, thatched roofs, and the eaves of barns and sheds, for this poor little bird. They captured them for their festivities on Saint Stephen’s Day.
This holiday was how our ancestors commemorated Saint Stephen’s Day in Ireland.
Now you may wonder, how a tiny little bird came to be hunted high and low at Christmas time in Ireland.
Saint Stephen Betrayed By The Wren:
One reason is that the wren was blamed for the stoning death of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr. How you might ask, could this innocent looking little bird be guilty of such a crime?
One old Irish tale, linking the wren to the first Christian martyr, recounts how the noise of a chattering wren alerted those searching for Saint Stephen as to his whereabouts. He was hiding in a bush when the lowly wren betrayed him to his enemies.
And that is why our ancestors felt justified to hunt this little bird before Christmas.
The Wren Betrays The Irish To The Vikings or Norsemen:
Another old Irish tale, explaining why this seemingly innocent little bird is so maligned tells of how it betrayed a troop of brave Irish soldiers, who were planning an attack on a group of invading Vikings.
Now the Vikings were feared throughout Ireland because they raided and attacked Irish monastic sites causing great destruction, loss of life and theft of Ireland’s precious religious artifacts.
The Irish were hiding in an attempt to sneak up on some Vikings, when a little wren started pecking at some bread crumbs left on a drum. The noise alerted the Norsemen and the Irish were once again defeated by these sea faring warriors.
The Wren As King Of All Birds:
You may wonder why the old Irish rhyme my father used to recite, claims the wren is the King of all Birds. Most would think a much larger and stronger bird, such as an eagle, should be the King.
However, an old Celtic tale tells of how this clever little bird outflew the eagle to claim the title.
A long, long time ago all the birds of the air came together for a gathering to choose a king. They decided the strongest bird should claim the title, and that would be the bird who could fly to the highest point in the sky.
The birds took flight together and one by one they gave up. Only the eagle kept on flying, soaring high above all the others. The eagle looked down and shouted out, “I am the king of all birds.”
But a little wren popped out from beneath the eagle’s feathers and stretched his wings. He flew above the eagle, who was too tired to follow the tiny wren.
The wren chirped out, as loudly as he could, “I am the King of all Birds.”
When all the birds landed on earth again, the wren returned to claim his title. But the other birds were not happy to be ruled by such a small, insignificant creature.
They decided to drown him, but they could find no water. Instead, they collected all their tears in a bowl with a view to harming the little wren. However, a clumsy owl tripped on the bowl of tears, and spilled it.
The wren escaped the wrath of the other birds, and to this very day, he retains his title as king of all birds in Ireland and the British Isles.
The Wren As A Symbol Of The Old Year And Other Celtic Superstitions:
In parts of the country young folk were encouraged to capture the wren alive. This was believed to be a sign of heralding in a prosperous year.
Since the Celts believed the wren was the King of the Birds, it was an important part of their old Celtic religious beliefs and held in high esteem by the druids.
It is thought that as the Irish became Christians, they merged some of their old pagan rituals, with their new Christian traditions. The poor little wren’s status diminished drastically, as the old pagan ways were left behind.
In the British Isles wren feathers were thought to be lucky. Sailors and fishermen often kept a wren feather with them because they believed it would protect them from being shipwrecked.
Hunting The Wren:
In centuries past, in some Irish counties, the wren was hunted and killed for this day of festivities.
Now catching a wren is no easy task. These little birds are clever. When a real bird was not found an alternative was used.
In parts of Ireland, feathers were used to adorn a sod of turf as a replica of the wren. In modern times, the wren escapes the brutality of this hunt and a fake bird is used.
The custom on Wren Day was for groups of mostly boys and men to dress up in old clothes and paint their faces. Some dressed in straw costumes and were known as straw boys.
They either took a live wren held in a box adorned with red berried holly with them, or a dead wren tied to a pole adorned with ribbons and evergreen leaves.
They then set out on a journey, traveling from door to door, and house to house, singing, dancing and playing music and asking for money wherever they went in order to “bury the wren”. This customary journey around a locality was called going on the ‘wran’.
In some parts of Ireland it was deemed to be good luck to have the wren buried opposite your house.
In other parts of the country the wren was buried opposite a house where no gift of food or money was received. It was a symbol of bad luck for the stingy household.
At the end of the day the wren boys divided up their takings. Adults held a wren party, where drink flowed freely on the strength of the wren money.
As you can imagine, the Catholic Church frowned upon this tradition, since alcohol and raucous behavior often ensured.
Here’s another version of the rhyme often recited on this day:
“The Wren, the Wren the king of all birds,
St. Stephens’s day, he was caught in the furze.
Although he is little, his honour is great,
Rise up, kind sir, and give us a trate.
We followed this Wren ten miles or more
Through hedges and ditches and heaps of snow,
We up with our wattles and gave him a fall
And brought him here to show you all.
For we are the boys that came your way
To bury the Wren on Saint Stephens’s Day,
So up with the kettle and down with the pan!
Give us some help for to bury the Wren!”
Celebrating The Wren In Modern Ireland:
In Munster and the south of Ireland, Wren Day, is a major event in some towns. The town of Dingle in County Kerry hosts a Wren Day Festival. On the 26th of December each year the whole town of Dingle is full of merriment, with straw boys parading through the streets to continue this ancient Irish tradition.
The Wrenboys are sometimes called Mummers. They dress in brightly colored motley clothing, with masks and streaming strands of straw. They dance through the streets accompanied by traditional Irish musicians.
In Dingle, The Wran, as the locals say, is an all day event. People arise early. Each street in the town boasts its own wren group. In the early morning people don their straw costumes and ribbon adorned fancy dress costumes.
They parade through the town waving banners and playing drums and whistles to announce to the world that Wren Day has arrived.
Now the wren got stuck in a holly bush. Therefore a pole with a hollybush is often carred by the Wrenboys and taken around the town from house to house.
Around midday children go from door to door in fancy dress collecting sweets and treats, and of course a little money.
In the early afternoon, all of the wren day participants join together to dance, march and parade through the streets of Dingle. The revelry continues long into the night at the Dingle pubs.
And so, if you ever wish to celebrate your Irish heritage at Christmas time, then a great idea is to visit the town of Dingle on the 26th of December. There, you can experience all the joy and merriment of Wren Day.
Thanks for stopping by to learn about our Irish cultural heritage and old Irish Christmas traditions.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
Here are some other ramblings about Irish cultural traditions you might enjoy ….
- Spiced Red Cabbage
- White Chocolate Peppermint Truffles
- Cranberry White Chocolate Chip Christmas Cookies
- Chocolate Dipped Holiday Strawberries
- Mixed Spice – A Traditional Festive Baking Ingredient in Ireland
- Perfect Mini Cheesecakes For Any Party
- Christmas Pinwheel Sandwiches For The Festive Season
- Christmas Chocolate Yule Log