@David Halpin Circle Stories
This ancient custom takes place on the 26th of December. The roots of The Day of the Wren extend back to pre-Christian times and its significance is most likely tied to the beginning of the new solar year following the winter solstice.
However, there are a number of theories as to the origins of this sometimes grizzly parade but most agree that it is the remnants of a type of sacrificial offering in order to acknowledge the death of winter.
Another link to this interpretation is because the wren was said to be a bird that would continue to sing even in the deep midwinter and in some north European countries the bird is known as ‘the winter king’. Much later Christian reasons for hunting the wren were said to be because of the bird’s treacherous nature and betrayal.
The tradition up until recently has been for mostly boys and men to dress up, hiding their faces and call house to house usually with the greeting of, “Penny for the ‘wran’ or “Bury the ‘wran’” which was the offset pronunciation. These groups are called Wren Boys or Mummers. Today it is mostly a dummy bird which is used but the traditional custom was to capture a live bird which would eventually be killed. The bird was then placed on top of a pole which was decorated with coloured ribbon, cut material or paper.
But why hunt and kill the wren in the first place and why was it mostly men who carried out this practice?
The reasons seem to be related to Samhain or Solstice celebrations and a strange tale involving either a Banshee or Queen of the Fairies, depending upon your source. A name most commonly associated with this being is Cliona, who was said to emerge from either the ocean or the underworld and sing and seduce young men before luring them to their watery deaths.
This has parallels to legends of the siren and other similar archetypes in world myths. In the Isle of Man Cliona is known under the name Tehi Tegi but the story is the same. Tehi Tegi would seduce the local men and lead them to the shore before drowning them. It is said that this queen of the underworld would transform into a wren when she was confronted and was cursed to return to land in this form every year after the winter solstice.
Another possible reason for hunting the wren was because of the birds association with Druids. When Christianity came to Ireland and began to ban and sometimes incorporate traditional pagan practices the etymology of the word ‘wren’ had strong links to these wise people.
The Irish for ‘wren’ is Dreolin from Draoi Ean, which means ‘The Druids Bird’ so the connection is easy to see.
The Day of the Wren customs are not as widespread as they once were but there are still many towns and villages in Ireland where this ancient custom takes place. The biggest celebrations in Ireland today will take place in Dingle where there will be a large parade. Some of the mummer’s costumes are strange and wonderful and others are quite scary and disturbing.
Finally, although mostly associated with Ireland, this custom has many incarnations worldwide with similar themed myths appearing on mainland Europe and even the Bahamas.