wrens


wrens
   In folk tradition, the wren is regarded as always female ('Jenny Wren'), and as wife to the *robin; like the latter she is a sacred bird and must not be harmed, nor should her eggs be taken, otherwise someone close to the taker will die:
   The robin redbreast and the wren Are God Almighty's cock and hen.
   Nevertheless, there exists a *calendar custom called 'Hunting the Wren' which was widespread in Ireland, Wales, and the Isle of Man, and not unknown in England. The usual time for the custom is St Stephen's Day (26 December), when groups of young men hunted and killed wrens and then paraded them around the neighbourhood with much singing and music. Hunting the Wren is thus normally disregarded in discussions of English customs, but there have been sufficient reports to indicate a reasonably strong presence in this country. In some instances, the custom may well have been performed by Irish or Welsh immigrants, as a writer from Plymouth, Devon, confirms: 'I have often known the Irish boys living in Stonehouse Lane, the St. Giles of Plymouth, go round the town with sticks and garlands, singing the well-known song of the Wren Boys from door to door, on St Stephen's Day, in order to get money, but I am happy to say I never could find either a living or dead wren among them' (Land and Water (30 Oct. 1880)). But there are too many references for them all to be explained in this way, as Armstrong, for example, lists fifteen English counties in which he found traces. One description includes the rhyme that is commonly used in Ireland: 'At Christmas-tide, boys are accustomed in Essex to kill wrens and carry them about in furze bushes, from house to house, asking a present in these words:
   The wren, the wren, the king of the birds St. Stephen's Day was killed in the furze Although he be little his honour is great And so, good people, pray give us a treat' (Henderson, 1879: 125)
   The picture is slightly obscured by an occasionally reported custom which may or may not be related. Several reports state that at Christmas time it was customary for villagers to go out into the woods to 'hunt', which often turned into an indiscriminate orgy of killing anything that moved, including wrens and other small birds (see *St Stephen's Day, and *squirrel hunting).
   Another strand in our wren lore is a widespread song which has excited folklorists' imagination for many years, 'The Cutty Wren' or 'Richat to Robert', which has been collected all over the British Isles and North America, with a first-known publication date of 1744. In a hypnotic, repetitive chant, the song details how we are to go hunting to kill a wren, in terms of how huge the bird is, how difficult to kill, and the prodigious amount of meat there will be to share out. It has been claimed that it has ancient ritual origins, which may be true, but there is no evidence and it is also possible that it belongs to the genre of hyperbolic comedy songs such as 'The Wonderful Crocodile', 'The Derby Ram', and so on.
   ■ Armstrong, 1958: 141-66; Swainson, 1886: 35-43; Opie and Opie, 1997: 437-40.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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