Hunting The Wren And Other Holiday Customs
by Kat Behling
In Ireland, the traditions of the Christmas season often begin with the celebration of Advent on December 8th. Rings of holly are hung on front doors and candles placed in windows - a custom that originated centuries ago as a means for the poor to decorate their dwellings and a symbolic welcoming for the Holy Family. Decorations remain until January 6th – it is considered bad luck taking them down before then.
Meanwhile , streets and storefronts are decked out with bright lights and animated figures. Choirs and musicians assemble on busy corners and magic fills the air. Gifts for family and friends are piled beneath trees festooned with ribbons, ornaments and tinsel. Anticipation grows as children open windows of their Advent calendar, each day revealing a special picture or sweet treat leading up to the big event. At night, the youngest member of the household lights the Advent candle and a prayer is said in preparation for the birth of the Christ Child.
Nollaig Shona Dhuit! (pronounced “NoLik Suna Ditch!”)
Frost and snow are a welcome sight as it not only means a White Christmas, it is thought to be a sign of a mild spring - and a new moon on Christmas Eve is a lucky moon.
There is an old custom to leave the door unlocked on Christmas Eve; a lit candle, a loaf of bread and pitcher of milk are left on the kitchen table as a sign of hospitality in the event Mary and Joseph or a wandering traveler pass through. Catholics attend Midnight Mass or Early Mass Christmas morning, after which time stockings and gifts are opened. Unlike elsewhere where Santa leaves toys under trees, in parts of Ireland he leaves them at the foot of each child’s bed - often in a pillowcase - while stockings are filled with chocolate coins, along with an apple in the top and an orange in the toe.
Afterward, a traditional breakfast of eggs, rashers, sausage, pudding and tea is served - tiding the family over ‘til dinnertime. It is common that the day is a busy one as father and children make the rounds visiting scores of relatives, while mother stays behind preparing the Christmas dinner. Served early in the afternoon, the huge dinner is likely to include turkey or goose, ham or spiced beef, potatoes, soup, vegetables, mince pie, plum pudding and brandy or rum sauce - with spirits and Guinness flowing freely throughout the day.
Wrens Day - December 26th
The day after Christmas, known as St. Stephan’s Day – or Wrens Day in Ireland - has roots dating to Pre-Christian Ireland. Birds are prominent in Irish mythology, serving as knowledgeable intermediaries between this world and the next. A popular folktale tells of a contest among the birds to determine which of them would earn the title “King of the Birds” by seeing who could fly the highest. Although the mighty eagle soared higher than all, a clever little wren, hitching a ride among the eagle’s feathers, emerged at the last moment thereby claiming the royal title by flying above it.
Another legend has St. Stephan, the first Christian martyr, hiding from his enemies in a bush - only to be betrayed by a chattering wren. And so the wren earned a reputation for treachery and traditionally hunted on St. Stephan’s Day, its corpse carried atop a bed of holly or tied to a pole decorated with ribbons - then marched through the village streets by hoards of singing and dancing young men and musicians in colorful straw costumes known as “Wrenboys” or “Mummers”. Those who gave money to this parade of boys were given a feather from the wren for good luck and money collected was used to hold a dance for the entire village.
The Wrenboy’s Song
The Wren, the Wren,
The King of Birds
On Stephan’s Day
Was caught in a furze,
Up with the kettle
And down with the pan
And give us some money
To bury the wren.
Today, the ancient ritual known as “Wren’s Day” or the “Mummer’s Festival” is enjoying a popular revival in parts of Ireland, although killing of the bird is no longer practiced – instead, a wooden wren house or caged wren is used in the procession. It ha s become a beloved festival and a popular day for friends visiting friends.
New Year’s Eve
Like elsewhere, the Irish celebrate New Year’s Eve with gusto. Greeting cards are exchanged between friends. Homes are made clean and spotless. Fresh linens are laid and cellars stocked with coal and provisions with hope that the upcoming year will be blessed and plentiful. Tables are spread with delicacies and children are allowed to stay up until midnight. An old Irish custom is to open and close the front door at the last stroke of midnight allowing the “old” year out and the “new” year in.
New Year superstitions are many. If you truly want to avoid bad luck in the coming year, do as the Irish do and avoid any of the following on New Year’s Day:
- Don’t wear shoes with a hole in them - or financial problems will remain with you the entire year
- Don’t wear new clothes on this day
- Don’t sweep the floor – or you’ll sweep a good friend away
- Don’t do laundry - throwing out water on this day is considered to be unlucky
- Don’t remove the ashes from the fire
- Don’t let the fire in the hearth go out
- Don't make deals - money made on New Years Day will bring bad luck
- Don’t carry debts over into the New Year
- Don’t pay bills on the first Monday of the New Year
With such a lengthy list of things not allowed on this day, it might be wise for one to stay in bed! But only AFTER you clean the chimney – for doing so will bring good luck, as will having the first visitor of the year (preferably a dark-haired man) bring a lump of coal to your home. However, beware a red-haired woman or someone whose eyebrows grow together as your first visitor – an omen that bad fortune will visit during the coming year.
And from all of us at the Irish Fireside
May peace and plenty be the first to lift the latch on your door
And happiness be guided to your home by the candle of Christmas.