Technically, today is the Feast of the Holy Family, but liturgical law notwithstanding, I still find myself calling it St Stephen’s Day. The British refer to today as Boxing Day, a reference to the fact that servants and tradesmen received ‘Christmas Boxes’ of goodies from their employees on this day. I doubt this custom survives, however to the Irish, the 26th of December is St. Stephen’s Day and is connected with the custom of the ‘Wran’. The ‘wran’ or (more properly) the ‘wren’ still survives in some rural parts of Ireland. Bands of men, young and old, (the wrenboys) put together disguises and travel from house to house, performing music and dances in exchange for a few coins and perhaps some refreshments. The traditional song for the day is the following ditty:
The wran, the wran, the King of all Birds,The ‘furze’ would be better known as the gorse bush and the ‘wren’ is a small brown songbird. Traditionally, the wrenboys would have caught and killed a wren earlier in the day and carried it with them as they made their rounds of the neighbourhood. Nowadays, of course, this is no longer done and a piece of furze bush is pressed into service as a replacement totem for the wren himself. But why this hostility to the wren? Traditionally, the Irish considered the wren to be the smallest and weakest of the birds, and therefore by necessity the most cunning. The tale is told that there was a contest between the birds as to who should be their King. The bird who flew the highest would receive the throne. Needless to say, the mighty eagle soared high above all other competitors. However, the wily wren had secreted himself on the eagle’s back and when the eagle had reached the zenith of his flight, the wren took off and flew a few feet higher again.
On St Stephen’s Day got caught in
So up with the pot and down
with the pan,
And give us a
penny to bury the wran.
This same cunning was to lead to the wren’s disgrace. I have been discussing with a correspondent various Irish Christian folklore and it strikes me that I had forgotten to mention the number of animal takes amongst them. Some are probably familiar to most of the English-speaking world – the origin of the cross on the back of an ass’s back and the robin’s red breast. However, there is a peculiarly Irish tale that for profit the wren betrayed the Holy Family to Herod’s soldiers as they fled into Egypt. There are a number of variations on the tale, but my favourite is the one where the Holy Holy Family hide in a cave and a spider contrives to put a web over the opening of the cave, thus making the pursuers think the cave was empty. Therefore, for his treachery, the wren is ‘hunted’ each St Stephen’s Day. In a variation, it is said that the wren had a hand in St Stephen’s execution too.
Traditionally the proceeds of the wrenboys’ labours went to finance a post-Christmas party – the Wren Ball. Due to their rowdy nature, the clergy attempted to suppress these gatherings in the late 19th and first half of the 20th Century. However, wags, with some justice, suggested that without the courting and matches made at these wren balls, there wouldn’t be as many priests brought into the world!