Informant is 54-year-old woman living in Dublin, Ireland. She was raised in rural southern Ireland. This festival called Wren Day is celebrated on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th. It is not a custom I have observed in Dublin, and seems to mainly be confined to rural areas, particularly in the south but it has also been seen in the Nordic countries. Wren in this tale is pronounced like “wran,” owing to the southern dialect. She learned of this festival from experiencing it, and she didn’t particularly enjoy it as she found the costumes scary. She is signified in this conversation by the initials C.D.
C.D.: Wren Day is always celebrated on St. Stephen’s Day at home. It’s not so much a festival that everyone celebrates, rather there are a few people that celebrate it and try and drag the rest of us into it. It involves men, usually, dressing up in straw outfits and masks and parading through the town singing songs. Back home, they’d work their way around the mountain and would knock on your door and sing a song – sometimes it had words, and other times it was just sounds, like the Native American chants – and they’d expect a penny in return. I always thought they were terrifying, dressed up like giant haybales and shouting in the front garden. In the village there would be a kind of parade, where the marchers would hold up these long wooden poles with nets on the top, that was supposed to symbolize the catching of the wren. I think they used to actually catch a wren sometimes, but maybe that’s gone out of fashion over time.
A: Do you know what the wren symbolized?
C.D.: It was meant to symbolize the old year being put away and the new year coming in. You’d only find the wren in winter, so by caging it and putting control on it the people are sort of forcing in the spring, maybe like a Groundhog Day style thing?
A: And do you remember the kinds of songs they’d sing?
C.D.: Like I said, I was usually too scared of them to really listen to what they were saying, but when they’d come to the house they’d end their songs in “If you haven’t got a penny then a hapenny will do,/ If you haven’t got a hapenny then God bless you!” That’s usually when my mam would hand them a penny or two, as they wouldn’t go away until you gave it to them.
This piece of folklore was related to me over the phone, as I am in California and she is in Ireland. I asked her about any festivals she had at home and she said that this was the strangest one she could think of that she actually experienced.
The wren is an interesting bird, as it is found in both the Catholic and Celtic traditions. In the Celtic tradition, the wren was a sacred bird that sang through the winter. In this sense, it symbolized enduring life through the harshest months. By sacrificing a wren at this time of year, the people ritualistically “killed” winter and ushered in the path for the spring birds. In the Christian tradition, the wren is thought to have betrayed St. Stephen, revealing his position whilst he hid from his enemies. This allowed for the tradition to endure through pre-Christian times until now, and explains the current dating of this festival to St. Stephen’s Day. This festival, then, projects the human and religious calendars onto the natural year cycle by eliminating winter and ushering in the Spring. Also, the idea that it is mostly men that participate in it speaks to the Catholic patriarchy in Ireland at the time that this tradition was prevalent.