Wren Day (St. Stephen’s Day)-Before the age of gift-returns

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat

Please put a penny in the old man’s hat

If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do

If you haven’t got a ha’penny then God bless you!

Though the nursery rhyme suggests that Christmas yet to with Wren Day – the ditty actually refers to the day after Christmas, aka St. Stephen’s Day. If you’ve spent the Christmas holidays on the Dingle Peninsula on the West Coast of Ireland, you may have joined in the Wren Day festivities. If not, here’s the short version of the custom.

Back in the day, long before the advent of ASPCA, the Celtic custom was to celebrate the day after Christmas with a sort of wren hunt….Though there are many versions of the roots of the tradition the Christian version was that God established a competition to identify the king of all birds, to be determined, logically enough, by the bird that flew he highest. One might expect that the eagle would have the edge, but according to legend the infallible eager got tired and lost altitude – to be saved by the competitive little wren that had been hiding under the eagle’s wing. With a little help from the wren, the eagle triumphed.

As usual there are countless versions of the origins of the custom. Some suggest that the Celtic tradition goes back to the Druids who celebrated midwinter (Samhain) with a sacrifice to mark the end of the past year; the wren became the symbol of the old year, possibly because the little bird was known to sing all winter. More than a few wrens may have perished in the traditional Wren Day festivities over the centuries. Young boys did indeed chase and capture the hapless wren that was captured, hoisted on a pitchfork, and paraded in triumph; mummers joined the parade, monetizing it with the passing of the hat memorialized in the nursery rhyme. Over time Wren Day was softened with a stuffed bird replacing the real thing and young girls and even adults joining the celebration.  Today Wren Day is celebrated in fact as well as memory – most notably in Dingle (https://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/home/culture-and-language/wren-s-day.html)

One wonders how the modern tradition of post-holiday gift-returning will be honored by future generations.


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