Wren Day

Yesterday afternoon I checked up and refilled the bird feeders in my garden and a bit later on sat down in the kitchen to see what visited. The usual suspects turned up: starlings, house sparrows, blackbirds, blue tits, great tits, dunnocks, a robin, and a couple of jackdaws. I think I’m going to have to replenish the feeders pretty soon the rate they are guzzling food.

Anyway, during a lull in the proceedings I saw something moving around in the raised beds. At first I couldn’t see it and could only tell from the moving leaves. Then it emerged briefly before darting back under cover. It was a wren. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen one in my garden. From time to time I could hear its very loud song – it’s another small bird with a very big voice! – but it remained quite difficult to see. I tracked the wren’s progress across the garden for quite a while before it finally flew off. It didn’t try to use the feeders but, as I found out later, the wren feeds exclusively on insects rather than seeds and nuts.

I wasn’t sure whether wrens spends the winter here in Ireland but in the process of googling that I found out about a strange and disturbing Irish Christmas tradition. Another name for St Stephen’s Day is Wren Day or Wren’s Day or The Hunt of the Wren Day (Irish: Lá an Dreoilín). This is because of an ancient tradition of hunting wrens at this time of year, the origins of which are lost in history but it is worth remarking that birds play an important role in Celtic and Norse mythology. Originally this was probably connected with the Winter Solstice, but moved to St Stephen’s Day when the season was coopted by the Christian Church. Many so-called “Christmas” traditions are in fact entirely pagan in origin.

Nowadays Wren Day does not involve hunting any actual birds, though the celebrations can include a fake wren as a sort of effigy. It seems to involve people dressing up like this:

The people dressed like Boris Johnson in that photograph are mummers (or wrenboys, or strawboys) and they take part in parades, sing songs and generally carry on. There are Mummers parades elsewhere in the world too, although probably not this year because of Coronavirus restrictions. This year groups of mummers have been taking the opportunity to visit the homes of people isolated by Covid-19 restrictions, although I’m not sure I’d want a group of people dressed like that turning up at my doorstep. It’s all a bit Wicker Man for my taste.

I checked the garden this morning and there was no sign of the wren. Perhaps it knows what used to happen on this day!

13 Responses to “Wren Day”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    “Many so-called “Christmas” traditions are in fact entirely pagan in origin.”

    Yes, this is entirely true, although none of these customs invokes pagan deities. Blame Pope Gregory I, at least in the English-speaking world, for he recommended the tactic to the missionaries he sent to England at the end of the sixth century. His letter commending the trick is in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History Of the English People, I.30. The leader of that mission was St Augustine of Canterbury (as he became known), not to be confused with St Augustine of Hippo the theologian who lived two centuries earlier. This missionary is counted as the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Latin book of the gospels he brought from Rome is housed in the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and used in the swearing-in ceremonies of Archbishops of Canterbury.

    Two theories exist as to why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th, as it has been since the fourth century. One is an earlier use of the syncretist trick, adapting the winter solstice. The other is a dubious ancient Jewish tradition, based on a questionable interpretation of some Old Testament lines about Moses, that great men died on the day or their beginning – although whether that means birth or conseption is ambiguous. Neither theory sheds any light on the time of year at which Jesus was born, and as the gospel narratives don’t do so either it clearly mattered nothing to the apostolic-era church. That is why Clement of Alexandria, writing two centuries later (Stromata, I) said that the time of year was not known and speculated about it.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      It’s been a while since I’ve read them, but aren’t young lambs mentioned in the gospels, which would point to springtime?

      Note also that the day of conception is not nine months before Christmas.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Those who believe that Jesus was born on December 25th argue that he was conceived in the previous spring, around Passover, which is certainly when he died, and that supposedly Moses set a precedent for great men to begin (in Jesus’ case, be conceived rather than born) on the same date he died. The Old Testament verses suggesting this of Moses are very ambiguous, so there are many weak points in the reasoning and I place no credence in this theory despite it being at least as early as the proclamation of December 25th as the day of Sol Invictus by Emperor Aurelian in AD274.

        The shepherds were watching over their sheep by night. Some people say that this rules out certain parts of the year when supposedly sheep were in at night, but that is not the case of the Awassi sheep of the region. Were they watching because these were the sheep for sacrifice in the Temple – which came from Bethlehem in a hint of Jesus’ crucifixion – and perhaps warranted 24-hour guard, or was it the lambing season, which is indeed December/January?

        To repeat: the gospel narratives don’t specify the time of year or even let it be worked out, so Bible-believers should suppose that God is unconcerned for them to know. No matter what the date, a huge celebration is unbiblical.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    The post-Christmas wren tradition is found in a few countries in Western Europe. I know of it having existed in Wales, though only from accounts of folk traditions and not from any personal experience.

    • telescoper Says:

      I had an email today from an old school friend who lives in the South of France describing a similar local tradition where he lives.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        That’s interesting. It’s curious the traditions are found over such a wide area.

      • telescoper Says:

        It could be a relic of very ancient Celtic traditions.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Yes, but it’s strange the traditions have survived independently. And the South of France is surprising given that it is some way from Brittany where Celtic culture has persisted strongly in France.

      • telescoper Says:

        Indeed but at one time Celts lived all across the continent, from Galicia (Spain) to Galatia (Turkey).

        Also Brittany was colonised fairly recently by Celts from South West England fleeing the Saxons. Breton isn’t one of the original continental Celtic languages.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Yes, but the persistence of traditions over such a long period including Southern France is surprising.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Peter: A lot of what we thought we knew about the Celts on the continent has gone out of the window with the coming of cheap whole-genome DNA sequencing, rather than looking at just a few sites on the genome as before. The idea is to compare (1) whole-genomes of ancient individuals, reconstructed from DNA in ancient bone marrow samples, with (2) a library of the genetic features of differing peoples, compiled from whole genomes of many persons sampled from each modern population. Some earlier DNA results about ancient migrations are being confirmed, some refuted. David Reich’s excellent book “Who we are and how we got here” runs through the findings up to three years ago, when it was published; but this revolution is still going on.

      • The Celtic story in Ireland has always been complicated but DNA sequences of prehistoric remains in Ireland have shown that it is even more complicated than was previously thought.

        I remember having a very interesting chat with a person who studies the evolution of languages, which is actually very similar to population genetics.

  3. Hela’r dryw

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