We always think it pretty standard that on Christmas day we celebrate the birth of Christ and at Epiphany we get the Christmas tree down otherwise it will be bad luck! (But in some countries Epiphany signals the arrival of the Magi and the bringing of the gifts)
Most often we do not look for the reason behind why these dates are so specific, but if we take a closer look, the majority of major church feast days are based on the Pagan traditions. Christmas Day is close to the Winter Solstice, known as Samhain, and Boxing Day is the feast day of St Stephen who as the first Christian Martyr.
Hunt the Wren Day is celebrated on St Stephens Day. The tradition consists of “hunting” a fake wren and putting it on top a decorated pole. Then the crowds of mummers would celebrate the wren (also pronounced wran) by dressing up in masks and colourful motley clothing. They would form music bands and parade through towns and villages. These crowds are sometimes called wrenboys.
There are many suggestions as to why the poor wren should be singled out for such treatment, such as it being a commemoration of the martyrdom of St Stephen and revenge on the wren because it is the reincarnation of an enchantress who lured men to their death in droves.
Originally it was quite a bloodthirsty ritual as gangs of youths would scour the countryside looking for a defenceless wren to trap and kill. The captured wren was tied to the wrenboy leader’s staff. It would be kept alive, as the popular mummers’ parade song states, “A penny or tuppence would do it no harm”.
The feathers of the wren are distributed amongst the wren boys as a good luck charm, being particularly potent against witchcraft and to prevent a shipwreck. Often the boys gave a feather from the bird to patrons for good luck.
The song, of which there are many variations, asked for donations from the townspeople. The money was used to host a dance for the town that night. The pole, decorated with ribbons, wreaths and flowers, and the wren, was the centre of the dance. Over time, the live bird was replaced with a fake one that is hidden rather than chased. The band of young boys has expanded to include girls, and adults often join in. The money collected from the townspeople is usually donated to a school or charity. A celebration is still held around the decorated pole.
On the Isle of Man this tradition is till kept alive a number of enthusiasts and although does not quite have the pomp and ceremony of earlier days, groups of people can be seen on Boxing Day keeping this old Celtic tradition alive.
So this Boxing Day, if you happen to be stopped in your tracks by what appears to be a group of people paying homage to a cake decoration on a pole, don’t honk your horn or walk around, but stay and watch what just might be one of the oldest hunts known