The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian group founded in 1973


The Hunting of the Wren

by Edwin Preece

Our little brown friend, the wren, Troglodytes troglodytes, has been the subject of many a romantic story and pretty picture in a child's story-book. We think of the wren with nothing but pleasure, calling it 'Jenny-wren' or 'pretty brown Jenny.' It's trilling, piercing song is heard with pleasure and affection, and many regard it as a sacred bird, with many an old scrap of legend or folk-tale to support the belief.

It is distressing to think that at one time the shy little songster was hunted as part of the Christmas festivities and often suffered the most cruel death.

In Devon there is a saying 'Kill a robin or a wren, never prosper, boy or man.' And in Essex, at the other side of England, they say:

The robin and the redbreast,

The robin and the wren, If ye tak' out of the nest,

Ye'll never thrive again.

And yet, at one time this bird was hunted to death every year on St Stephen's Day (26th December) in many parts of the British Isles.

In the Isle of Man, parts of the ritual still survive in fragmentary form. Groups of teenage lads go around the village singing a garbled and indistinct version of the 'Wren Song,' knocking on people's doors to ask for money, in the manner of carol-singers:

The leader of the group usually carries a pole surmounted by a green garland, but the wren itself, once carried in the garland, is now missing. The others often carry a stick decorated with leaves and greenery.

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,

On St Stephen's Day was caught in the furze.

Although he is little, his family is great.

I pray you, good dame, to give us a treat.

This is the last trace of the famous wren hunt, which was once very widely pursued in the south and west of England, Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man and France. John Kelly, writing in his 'English and Manx Dictionary,' compiled about 1790, described it thus: 'On St Stephen's Day the inhabitants of this district assemble to hunt the little wren, which, when caught and killed, they fasten to the top of a pole and carry about in procession, with drums beating and colours flying, and distribute for money the feathers of the bird, which are esteemed by the purchasers to be a charm against evil for the ensuing year.'

Sailors prized these feathers, and believed that they would be preserved from the terrors of storm and shipwreck if they carried them.

It is a long time, thank goodness, since boys hunted the wren in these islands on Boxing Day - one of the few traditions we are better off without.

From the Christian Herald dated December 17, 1983

Reproduced with thanks.

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