After the peace and quiet of Christmas day, when the only outing is Mass and the main activity is eating, St. Stephen’s day shakes the quiet off and rouses the village from their turkey stupor. Visitors are in for a treat when a loud group of musicians and dancer’s dressed up in wild masks and colorful motley clothes pound into your house, play music, dance and then shake a bag at you looking for money. The Wren (pronounced Wran) is a brilliantly mad Irish Christmas tradition here in West Kerry where groups of men originally hunted a wren bird, and then paraded it from house to house in a straw cage or else killed it and nailed the body to a tall pole they carried. The origins are not totally clear but probably pagan as the Wren bird was associated with treachery. Money was collected and then used to host local dance where the bachelor wren boys would hope to meet a wife. The Wren has died out in most parts of Ireland but had been revived in some parts as a parade or in pubs. Dingle has a large parade and has made it an attraction for people from around the county and Ireland for a big party.
The tradition remains largely the same around here (minus the dead bird and wife hunting) and the Wren still goes from house to house early in the day and then moves to the two pubs before heading up to the village around six for what turns into a rowdy night out. While most of the money goes to a local charity, there is still a Wren Ball before New Year’s which when I first was here for Christmas was in the old derelict school-house. The school has since been commandeered by one of our neighbors and bordered up so the mayhem is confined to one of the two local pubs.
Although a little confusing and hard to explain for a two-year old, the kids love trying to identify their friends and neighbors in masks and join in the afternoon revelries in the pub.
The traditional Wren Song (I’ve never heard this but it could still be sung by some Wrens)
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat (pronounced ‘trate’)
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren (pronounced ‘wran’)
Are there any mad Christmas traditions where you are in the world?