While visions of sugarplums dance in our heads on the night before Christmas, it’s wren boys who captivate the Irish imagination on the day after, ancient revelers who "hunt the wren," begging for treats or money from friends and neighbors for a St. Stephen’s Day party.
In Ireland, Dec. 26 is a bank holiday, a day at the races, and in many rural areas it’s a day to "hunt the wren." The age-old custom of saluting the "king of birds" on St. Stephen’s Day is one of the richest traditions observed by the Irish. The festival commemorates an ancient ritual that called for singers and dancers to go from door to door, perform a comical routine and beg for money or treats.
Originally the singers, called Wren Boys, carried a wren in a cage and pretended that the bird was asking for alms. More popularly, however, they carried a stuffed wren hung on a pole or placed in a bed of evergreen or furze. As they walked around the village, they sang a song referring to the wren’s role in betraying St. Stephen to Roman soldiers: