Folklore of Saint Stephen’s Day

 

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One of the most striking traditions associated with the 26th December is “The hunting of the wren”. In the past teams of young men would go out and hunt down the small birds to kill them and place them in the “wren bush” that they would carry around. They would then travel around performing music and collecting money. The origins of this peculiar tradition are lost in the mists of time. Of course with many folk traditions whose origins are obscure, it has been theorised that the custom has a pre-christian origin

Today, the tradition continues in many places but with the omission of the bird killing (fake birds are now used). The  Wren boys would disguise themselves, sometimes dressing in girls clothes, use veils or curtains on their face, or use the traditional straw men garb. Below are a few accounts of the tradition:

“people who don’t eat meat on the day will not be sick during the year”

(NFSC, Volume 0787, Page 56)

Wren Boys:

Young boys go around with the wren.They hold the wren in a box and sing a song. The song is:”The wren, the wren the king of all birds.St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze. Up with the kettle and down with the pan, Give us something and honour the wren. On St. Stephen’s Day people go visiting (NFSC, vol.0104: 391).

>In The journals of the Kildare archaeological society,v, 452 it mentions that if any of the wren boys were refused money when they visited houses, they would bury a wren (from their “wren bush”) opposite the hall door into which no good luck could enter for twelve months (Danaher,1972:247). Just to address the burying of the wren, there was a strong tradition in Ireland of sympathetic magic such as that displayed above. Often referred to as a “piseog”. Often meat, eggs or straw dolls were buried in a field of the person you wanted to “curse” or affect the luck of the person you aimed the piseog at. Sometimes items were also placed in walls or foundations of houses to bring luck (I might put an article together about this at some point).

>On St.Stephens day the boys of the district go with the wren. They disguise themselves. Some of them dress like girls. They wear masks and old clothes. They go from house to house singing,dancing, and playing music. They recite the following wren song; “The wren, the wren, the King of all birds, on St.Stephans day she was caught in the furs. Although she is small her family is great. Stand up young laddie and give us a treat. Up with the kettle and down with the pan. Give us some money and let us be gone. Look in the purse,There may be a copper there.help the wren. They gather a great amount of money and get plenty to eat and drink as they go around at night, they meet together and have a “spree.” (NFSC,Vol.0823:101)

“If there was no wren –  people would think it was not Xmas at all”. (NFSC,Vol.0769:170)

>My father told me that when he was a little boy the people were more superstitious than they are now. If persons refused to give money to the wren boys, twenty or thirty years ago, all they had to do was to say that they would bury a feather of the wren convenient to their house and they would immediately give money rather than run the risk of having bad luck for a number of years.
Long ago the wren boys went on foot from house to house and as they could not cover a great deal of ground the takings were generally small.
Sometime they trampled through rain and snow from morning till night and had only one shilling or one and sixpence for their trouble.
Nowadays the wren boys travel on bicycles. (NFSC: Vol.0760:531).

“We followed him up,
We followed him down,
Till one of the wren boys,
Knocked him down.”

“Our clothes we tore,
And our boots we wore,
Following the wren,
For three days or more.”
“The wren-boys,
The wren-boys,
Here we are again,
We won’t be here,
Till next year,
And here we are again.”
(NFSC: Vol.0700:349)

>On St. Stephen’s Day the “wren-boys” go around in procession from house to house. Grown up men come to the village also from the adjoining towns, and they are so well disguised that they are rarely recognized. They usually have a few melodeons in the party, and dance while a few go around to the houses for money. The whole party often enter the house, and dance among themselves or with the women-folk of the house – if they enter into the spirit of the festival. There is not any particular old song sung at this time – just any song they can all sing together. It is usual to spend the money gathered on drink and eatables to provide refreshment at a night’s dance which they hold in some neighbour’s house. The “wren-boys” are often called the “mummers”.
The custom of children dressing and going around gathering money is dying out of late. (NFSC:0056:0153).

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Image: The Photographic Collection, H055.18.00013
Image and data © National Folklore Collection, UCD.

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