Tuesday, December 18, 2007

December 26: Not a good day to be a wren

If you've been reading Small-leaved Shamrock and A Light That Shines Again this Advent season, hopefully you've learned some new information about the customs and traditions of an Irish Christmas. We've covered whitewashing the house, decorating with holly, Irish Gaelic holiday greetings, Irish Christmas songs of modern times and of old, and even the symbolic meanings behind one song that may have an Irish connection. We've remembered St. Nicholas' visits to Ireland, and Christmas morning, and more and more...

One additional Irish holiday tradition that cannot be forgotten actually lands on the day after Christmas. December 26 is the feast of St. Stephen, whom you may remember as the first martyr, stoned to death shortly after the death of Jesus. According to legend, Stephen was taking refuge in a furze bush to hide from his enemies when a little bird began to sing, betraying him to his pursuers.

The actions of that bothersome little bird have caused the discomfort and often the downfall of many a wren over the centuries in Ireland. Presently in Ireland the bird chosen by the "wren boys" to represent that first bird is not killed, but just caught and fed. For centuries, however, many a wren met its end on St. Stephen's Day. In fact, the custom of sacrificing a wren actually may go back to the ancient Druids, to whom the bird was sacred.

An interesting account of the custom of the "hunting of the wren" was written by Sir James George Frazer in The Golden Bough published in 1922. Frazer's book states:

A writer of the eighteenth century says that in Ireland the wren “is still hunted and killed by the peasants on Christmas Day, and on the following (St. Stephen’s Day) he is carried about, hung by the leg, in the centre of two hoops, crossing each other at right angles, and a procession made in every village, of men, women, and children, singing an Irish catch, importing him to be the king of all birds.” Down to the present time the “hunting of the wren” still takes place in parts of Leinster and Connaught. On Christmas Day or St. Stephen’s Day the boys hunt and kill the wren, fasten it in the middle of a mass of holly and ivy on the top of a broomstick, and on St. Stephen’s Day go about with it from house to house, singing:

“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze;
Although he is little, his family’s great,
I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.”

Money or food (bread, butter, eggs, etc.) were given them, upon which they feasted in the evening.

Today the custom is often referred to as the "Feeding of the Wren". According to this Museum of Science & Industry Holidays Around the World webpage, St. Stephen's Day is celebrated in modern times as follows:

...Irish children scour the countryside for a wren, a small bird similar to a sparrow, or they purchase one. The wren is placed in a cage and the children go door to door collecting money for the poor. Young men costumed and in masks go through the villages and towns making loud noises. They carry a holly bush that is on top of a long pole. The holly bush has a wren in it and the young men solicit money for the poor. At the end of the day the wrens are released.
In honor of this Irish tradition and their many residents whose ancestors emigrated from the Emerald Isle, Schuylkill County's Ashland Area Historic Preservation Society focused their annual Old Fashioned Christmas on Ireland, entitling it Going on the Wren.

It looks like the wren won't live down its ancestor's behavior any time in the near future, nor will it have a restful December 26, even on this side of the Atlantic.

See Thomas MacEntee's Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories at Destination: Austin Family if you're in the mood for more good Christmas stories. Check out his calendar daily this month for some good mini-memoirs of this nostalgic season. This post will be listed under Christmas Grab Bag on December 22.

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