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Wren Boys

Hunting the Wren traditionally takes place on St Stephen's Day (Boxing Day). It was unlucky to hunt it at any other time. The Wren is known as the King of Birds. Long ago, the Birds held a contest to see who should be King by who could soar highest. Of course it was the Eagle, but as the Eagle tired, the Wren appeared from under its tail feathers and soared even higher.

Boys find and kill a Wren and put it (sometimes in a box or lantern) on a ribbon decorated pole which is paraded door to door where food, drink or money are begged sometimes in exchange for a feather. The Wren represents the Old Year, the Robin represents the New. The Robin is alleged to have trapped the Wren in an Ivy Bush (or Holly Bush) and killed it. Thus the old year was ritualistically killed to make way for the new and is re-enacted by the Wren Boys. Nowadays, the Wren is usually left alive and out in a cage, or an artificial one is used.

It is quite possibly one of the oldest surviving rituals and may be the link between many of the surviving fragmented customs of Britain and Ireland.

The Wren boys are strongly associated with Mumming, music and dance and often have blackened faces.

The famous song associated with this is the Cutty Wren.

A traditional Song sung while processing is 'The King' or 'The Wren' recorded by both Steeleye Span and the Watersons.

Joy, health, love and peace
Be all here in this place
By your leave we will sing
Concerning our king

Our king is well dressed
In the silks of the best
In ribbons so rare
No king can compare

We have travelled many miles
Over hedges and stiles
In search of our king
Unto you we bring

We have powder and shot
For to conquer the lot
We have cannon and ball
To conquer them all

Now Christmas is past
Twelfth tide is the last
And we bid you adieu
Great joy to the new

 

Another Rhyme (in the Mumming fashion) chanted was:

Mr {name of person} is a worthy man,
And to his house we've brought the wren
The wren, the wren that you may see
Is guarded by the holly-tree

Refrain: 

Sing holly, sing ivy, sing ivy, sing holly,
To keep a bad Christmas it is but a folly;
For Christmas comes but once a year,
And when it comes it brings good cheer

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 people, give us a treat

My box would speak, if it had but a tongue,
And two or three shillings, would do it not wrong,
Sing holly, sing ivy--sing ivy, sing holly,
A drop just to drink, it would drown melancholy.

Yet if you do fill it of the small,
It will not do for our boys at all;
But if you fill it of the best,
We hope in heaven your soul may rest.

Sometimes the refrain is given as:

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren

 

There are several versions of this type of rhyme and all appear to be fragmented remains. 

And yet another:

We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin,
We hunted the wren for Jack of the Can,
We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin,
We hunted the wren for every one.