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St. Stephen's Day in Ireland & Hunting the Wren


St Stephen's Day and Hunting the Wren in rural Ireland at Christmas time.

In modern times, the practice of "hunting the wren" involves musicians roaming from gathering to gathering and "passing the hat" on "St. Steven's Day." (Dec. 26th) as they entertain friends and neighbors.

Discover the rich and varied history of "hunting the ran" and this tiny's birds mighty place in the mythology of the Celts....

Play Accompanying Music

Click here to hear "Hunting the Wren" available as a single MP3 download here. (Track # 4).

St. Stephen's Day

St. Stephen's Day celebrates the first Christian martyr and falls on December 26th. However, the celebration of the day seem to have little relation to St. Stephen himself, although there is one tale that recounts the 'chattering' wren betraying St. Stephen to his enemies as he tries to hide from them in a bush.

Thereafter, the wren, much like poor St. Stephen, was to be hunted down and stoned to death! This treatment of the wren, in Ireland, however, was to be an annual event, accompaniment by strolling musicians going door to door in disguise. It is believed to go back hundred and hundreds of years and is still practiced today. Bands of musicians go from door to door entering private and/or public houses as they' hunt the wren' (pronounced 'ran') entertaining the gathering in exchange for food, drink and /or coin and announcing themselves with the following song:

The Wren, The Wren

The Wren, the Wren the king of all birds,
St. Stephenses day, he was caught in the furze.
Although he is little, his honor is great,
Rise up, kind sir, and give us a trate.

We followed this Wren ten miles or more
Through hedges and ditches and heaps of snow,
We up with our wattles and gave him a fall
And brought him here to show you all.

For we are the boys that came your way
To bury the Wren on Saint Stephenses Day,
So up with the kettle and down with the pan!
Give us some help for to bury the Wren!

The tradition of Hunting the Wren is rich and varied. Historically, a wren was captured and though to bring good luck for the new year. Another legend has it that the wren was the cleverest bird of all.

Birds hold a special place in the Celtic imagination and in Celtic mythology the the tiny wren holds powerful sway. Some believe the word "dreoilín" (Gaelic for "wren") has its roots in the term "Druid's bird" and that it acted as as messenger between this world and the next.

Over time, the tradition became associated with 'mumming' (another tradition involving disguise using costumes made of straw). These Mummers 'plays' often involved St. Patrick himself! For more on Mummers and Mumming, click here.

Irrespective of details, the core theme of mummers plays is that of death and resurrection, the death of the old year and the rebirth of the new. The age old expression of a vital system.

At the very least, 'hunting the wren,' reflects the universal practice of dressing in costume or disguise and having an 'out of body' or 'out or everyday life' experience, in order to relieve the tensions and constraints of every day life.