In Ireland, December 26 is known as St. Stephen's Day, traditionally a time when the Wren Boys would pay a visit. A group of young lads of a townland would disguise themselves and go from house to house in the parish carrying a holly bush on which they perched a wren they had captured and killed. With traditional instruments, they'd dance and sing:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze; Although he is little, his family is great, So rise up, landlady, and give us a treat. . . . On with the kettle and down with the pan, And give us a penny to bury the wren. This or some regional variation would delight each household as everyone tried to guess the identities of the visitors, who were rewarded with hospitality and coins. In more recent times the wren has been replaced by an effigy of the bird.
The ritual of the Wren Boys in Ireland is said to have various origins. Perhaps the most popular version is that during penal times, when Catholic rights were restricted, the song of the wren alerted English soldiers to the approach of Irish rebels. The practice of the Wren Boys is an old medieval custom in much of western Europe, however, and is likely of much older beginnings. Another account tells of the wren song spoiling an Irish ambush of Norse invaders in the 8th century. A different story says that the song of the wren betrayed St. Stephen's hiding place to those who were pursuing him. Yet even earlier accounts may be rooted in older, pagan times.
Like most traditional rural customs in Ireland, the practice of the Wren Boys is fast fading into a misty past as the modern world colors all things anew with its global digital imprint of instant communication. Yet with the coming of such progress we all, I think, have lost another of the few remaining links to our agrarian past. Those of us born and bred in cities had lost that connection to our ancestors' way of life long ago. In our lifetimes most of us have never known what it was to work the soil, grow our own food, tell time by the position of the sun, or make our way home by the moon or stars. We do not know what it was like to live our days never traveling more than a few miles from our homes, or to illuminate the dark by the flicker of candlelight, living attuned truly to the cycle of the seasons, the rhythm of the land. Despite all of the modern conveniences with which our lives are blessed, we have, I fear, lost something irreplaceable.
Thomas D. Kersting December 26, 2022