Wren Day: An Ancient Irish Christmas Tradition That Survives to This Day

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Wren Day was once as common throughout the country at Christmas time as turkey dinners are today. This amazing tradition still survives in parts of the country, but where did it come from?

So you’ve made it through Christmas Day unscathed. Everyone seemed happy with their presents, and at this stage, who really cares if they’re not? All that remains is for you to make good your escape from the family before someone sends you over the edge. You could go to the races, or the pub, or try battling the crowds in the sales. But there is another option, one that taps into centuries of Irish tradition: Wren Day.

Traditionally in Ireland, the day after Christmas was called Wren Day (Lá an Dreoilín). On this day, groups of boys and men (the wren boys) would dress up in old clothes, paint their faces and go from door to door, singing, playing music and asking for money to bury the wren (sometimes pronounced as ‘wran’).

Part of the tradition involved the hunting and killing of a wren. The wren boys would hunt a wren, either on the day itself, or during the days beforehand. They would carry the wren with them as they went from house to house and woe betide anyone who didn’t offer something to the wren boys – if not money, then something to eat or drink. The bird might be buried outside such a house, an event that would bring bad luck for the following year.

wren boys of old

Wren boys of old

Wren Day Celebrations

Although Lá an Dreoilín has almost disappeared, it is still practised in some parts of the country – although no actual wrens are harmed during the festivities these days.

Dingle in Co. Kerry can take much of the credit for keeping the tradition alive, as Wren Day takes over the town on December 26th. Preparations go on for weeks beforehand, with traditional costumes being made from straw. There are four wren groups in the town, each with their own colours. Competition between the factions is part of the fun. Find out more here.

In recent years, a more modern twist on the tradition has established itself. The Pieta House Wren Run takes place in Woodford, Co. Galway for the fourth time this year. It’s a great day out, an opportunity to connect with people, get some exercise and shake off the Christmas cobwebs. There’s tea and coffee beforehand, music along the route and great prizes to be won. With 3km and 6km courses that are dog and buggy friendly, you can bring the whole family – even the ones who’d rather stay home in their pjs. Register here.

What Did the Poor Wren Do to Deserve This?

So, where did this strange tradition come from and why pick on the poor little wren? Different stories are told to explain the persecution of the wren. Like all long-standing traditions, it has evolved, with various attempts made to explain something that has totally escaped our cultural recollection.

The cause of all the fuss, looking very innocent

Most explanations centre around the wren’s betrayal. It’s said the bird’s song alerted Cromwell’s troops to the presence of Irish forces who were about to attack them. One of the most common explanations is that the wren betrayed Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Apparently, the bird flapped its wings to attract Saint Stephen’s pursuers to his hiding spot.

But these are more modern interpretations. Some say that early Christians spread these stories to undermine pagan reverence for the wren. Since similar celebrations took place in Britain and parts of Europe, perhaps it was a Celtic tradition?

We know that wrens were sacred to the Celts; in fact, all birds held a position of importance in Irish mythology. The wren represented the old year and it’s believed that the Celts would hunt the wren when the dark half of the year was coming to a close, at midwinter.

There are fascinating stories from Irish mythology that seek to explain Wren Day. According to one tale, the wren betrayed Fionn McCumhaill by pinching his ear with its beak, thus revealing his presence to pursuers. Another tale involves Cliona, a mythical woman of the otherworld. She was said to entice men to their deaths by seducing them to follow her into the sea. To escape capture, she turned herself into a wren, and was hunted every Christmas thereafter as punishment.

There are also various stories about the wren betraying Irish soldiers to the Vikings by giving away their presence, thus causing their defeat. And in other parts of Europe where Wren Day was celebrated, similar localised stories came to be told.

A Bronze Age Custom

Like many pre-Christian traditions, it appears that celebrations involving the wren were adapted to suit new beliefs. But its roots may go back even further than the Celts.  In her book Hunting the Wren, Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence tells us that “stories, which obscured the original meaning of the rites, were fused to the ancient wren traditions, causing confusion”.

According to historical sources quoted by Atwood, the “cult of the Wren” is believed to come from a very primitive paganism that predates farming, and was brought to the British Isles during the Bronze Age by megalith builders.

The Bronze Age began about four and a half thousand years ago, so that means Wren Day has been with us, in one form or another, for thousands of years. Here’s hoping it lasts for many more years to come.

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