The Wren Boys are an old tradition and so is the Hunting of the Wren. Its later forms, in Ireland, included catching a wren, sometimes keeping it alive and parading it round the village and at others killing it – not stuff we’d want to do nowadays. But what is the wren about, and why now, the day after sun-return and the first of the 12 days of the season?
The wren is the king of birds. The old story of how he got to be this tells of the contest between the birds to see who could fly highest. The eagle believed he had won until, all of a sudden, the little wren who had hidden in his feathers flew up beyond him when he had reached as high as he could go, and so the wren took the title of king of birds. This story shows a lot about how we, in the old ways of Britain, viewed the needs of kingship, i.e. guardian to the goddess. The wren is a trickster, he gains his height with the aid, albeit unknowing, of another bird, and this trickster-ability is such a good trait for one’s guardian! The king wren thinks on his feet and his wings, he dances into a new situation and big problems don’t faze him … just what the goddess needs!
Like kings and guardians all over the world in ancient traditions, he dies at the end of his term and is reborn; so many of our stories show this in different ways. And this is like the sun who dies on the longest night and then stands still, by appearing to rise at the same point on the horizon for three days, before moving on again. Does this death, followed by three days’ standstill (in the tomb?) ring any more modern bells for you? Perhaps you can see how modern religions took our old ways and converted them for themselves?
So, the wren king dies, is buried in the earth, and rises again. The celebration is about the death and rebirth of the sun, sun-return, as the sun begins to move on again after the 3-day standstill of the solstice. In olden times, we worked with a moon calendar, the 13 moons of the year, which fits altogether better with nature – working with nature, sowing, planting, cultivating and harvesting – than does our modern calendar.
So, after the Long Night and the 3-day standstill, we celebrate the rebirth of the new sun, the sun that will bring life to us for the coming year. The Sun is the companion and guardian, life-giver, to the Earth – as indeed it is in modern physics – he is the king and so the guardian of the goddess for us in the old ways of Britain, and indeed in much of Europe.
We used to celebrate this in one of the villages where I grew up in SW Britain sixty-odd years ago, but no live wren was captured or killed. We collected wren-feathers through the year, especially in spring when some got killed naturally, and built our own tylwyth (totem is a word you’ll likely know better) wren. The tylwyth is the spirit of the wren, the overlighting spirit that enlivens all little wrens, and it’s also the spirit of the wren king. We embodied this spirit when we women and girls made our tylwyth. We were the representatives of the goddess and so built the form for our guardian.
Our village feast began with a lament for the death of the Sun, as the sun goes down into the earth for the final time of his year – remember, we celebrated the new year according to the astronomy, the longest night, not according to the modern calendar. This was a mummers’ style play of hunting the tylwyth wren, followed by the burying of the wren, and finally its rebirth when it was put proudly on top a pole decorated with ivy – the wren’s plant – and coloured ribbons. The mummers were the Wren Boys, which included the men as well as the boys of the village; they were all dressed up in masks and tatters, motley-coloured clothing similar to what Border Morris dancers wear. Musicians from the village would play and sing, and there would be a wake in somebody’s house or the village hall, sharing food, telling stories, singing and dancing. It could get fairly wild and lots of tricks got played on everyone, taking the idea from how the wren got to be king of birds in the first place.
Then, in the morning after sun return, 26th December, the Wren Boys, all dressed up again but just the boys this time, took the Wren King around the village and stopped at each house to sing his song.
Little wren is the man,
About him there’s a stir,
There’s a story upon him everywhere.
He was captured, the rascal,
Last night with rejoicings
In a snug pretty chamber
With his brothers thirteen. (13 moons)
He was placed ’neath a shroud
On a fair motley bier,
Are tied all around him,
Ribbons all twisted
In place of his mane.
Thou shalt have dinner of apples and flour
That came from the orchard this morn of St. Stephen,
Thou shalt have dinner of green leaves of bay
That came from the garden so early this morning,
Thou shalt have dinner on shining white stones
That came from the brook after evening supper.
O fair little mistress, give heed to our plaint!
Young children are we, let us into your house,
O come to us quick or we’ll all run away!
They asked for money from each house which usually went to the village school to pay for extras or to help those who were very poor.
It’s an old, old custom, found in various forms in Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Mann and Scotland, as well as in Brittany and other parts of France, all places of the Celtic-speaking peoples even if many of them have forgotten the old tongue. It would be good if it was revived again around Britain.