26th December - Hunting the Wren and Boxing Day

Written by Anne Newman - 8th January 2020 and updated 2021 & 2023

Hunting the Wren

... sometimes pronounced wran, takes place every year on 26th December, St. Stephen’s Day.

The Wren boys (or girls!) dress up in old clothes and paint their faces. In some parts of the country, they also wear straw headgear. They travel from house to house singing, dancing and playing music. In rural areas, it will usually be neighbours they call on often collecting money for a local charity.

It’s a well-maintained tradition in Kerry. The town of Dingle holds the best known Wren with a parade through the town every Christmas.

There is also a hunting the wren in Dublin at Sandymount. RTE - wren day in dublin

The history of the Wren predates Christmas, its origins are in Irish mythology where birds held great prominence. They were believed to be a link between this world and the next.

The wren is said to have betrayed Irish soldiers fighting Norsemen by beating their wings on their shields.

The poor wren is also blamed for betraying St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. This is probably why the wren was once hunted on this day. In former times it was hunted and then nailed to a pole at the head of the procession.

The Wren boys rhyme, which was recited before the collection, varied from place to place but was generally a variation of:

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen's day was caught in the furze.
His body is little but his family is great
So rise up landlady and give us a trate.
And if your trate be of the best
Your soul in heaven can find it's rest.
And if your trate be of the small
It won’t plaze the boys at all.
A glass of whiskey and a bottle of beer
Merry Christmas and a glad New Year.
So up with the kettle and down with the pan
And give us a penny to bury the wran.

Except for the ritual killing on St. Stephen's Day, it was universally regarded as unlucky to injure the wren at any other time or to rob its nest. Where the tradition survives today a fake bird is always used.

The Wrenboy tradition in other countries

Wrenboy ceremonies, with different forms of verse to Ireland, were popular in France, England and the Isle of Man. There were other cultural differences too in that the wren was hunted in England but not in Scotland.

In France, the first person to kill the bird was king! A wren-hunting ritual at Carcassone in southern France is described in the The Golden Bough by James George Frazer.

The Fête du Roi de l'Oiseau, still takes place since first recorded in 1524.

From the website - The King of the Birds festivities

Since 1986, every 3rd weekend in September, the town of Puy-en-Velay (Haute-Loire) rediscovers its Renaissance colours. Through a popular celebration of high cultural standing, the city takes the pretext of an ancient and authentic archery competition to plunge
back into its glorious past.

On the Isle of Man, the hunting of the wren is associated with an ancient enchantress or 'queen of the fairies' (or goddess) named 'Tehi Tegi' which translates to something like 'beautiful gatherer' in Brythonic (the Manx spoke Brythonic before they switched to Gaelic). Tehi Tegi was so beautiful that all the men of the Island followed her around in hope of marrying her, and neglected their homes and fields. Tehi Tegi led her suitors to the river and then drowned them. She was confronted, but turned into a wren and escaped. She was banished from the Island but returns once a year, when she is hunted.

There is further information on Tehi Tegi here - Tehi Tegi

In Galicia, Spain, the Caceria del rey Charlo (Chase of King Charles) was performed. The inhabitants of Vilanova de Lourenza would chase down a wren and, after tying it to a pole, would parade it and show it to the Abbot of the local monastery, who would then offer them food and drink and appoint two leaders of the local town council out of the four candidates proposed by townsmen. This tradition has been recorded since the 16th century.

Boxing Day 26th December, is a holiday celebrated the day after Christmas Day.

It originated in the United Kingdom and is celebrated in a number of countries that previously formed part of the British Empire.

In Britain, back as far as the 1830s, Boxing Day was the first weekday after Christmas day, observed as a holiday on which postmen, errand boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas box. The term "Christmas box" dates back to the 17th century, and among other things meant: A present or gratuity given at Christmas to servants and employees.

This custom is linked to an older British tradition where the servants of the wealthy were allowed the next day to visit their families since they would have to serve their masters on Christmas Day. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses, and sometimes leftover food.

When I was growing up, we used to receive a gift from the Local Supermarket as a thanks for giving them our custom during the year. I can remember my husband getting 'Christmas Boxes', usually a bottle of wine or tin of biscuits, from his employer to give the customers he used to deal with each year. It's interesting to see how things have changed over the years. Sometimes, I think we have lost out on good customs.

The exact origin of the European tradition of giving money and other gifts to those in need and in service positions is unknown. It is believed to be connected to the Alms Box placed in areas of worship to collect donations to the poor. The tradition may come from a custom in the late Roman/early Christian era wherein metal boxes placed outside churches were used to collect special offerings tied to the Feast of Saint Stephen which falls on the same day as Boxing Day.