Island folk hunt the wren.
Hunting the Wren
By Howard Caine
Wild packs of men and women banging sticks on Boxing Day? Sounds weird and looks as crazy - but it's all in a day's Hunting the Wren.
If, during a restorative walk on Boxing Day, you've been halted in your progress by a group of men and women dancing around a decorated stick - fear not. Indeed count yourself lucky, for you've stumbled across a group continuing the age-old tradition of Hunting the Wren.
The custom, though certainly of great age, is not unique to the island. It is, or has been, practiced in various forms in England, Ireland and as far away as Marseilles in France.
The ritual is re-enacted on Boxing Day.
Whilst these days it's generally rather benign in its effect on the local population of Troglodytes troglodytes this hasn't always been the case and even now you wouldn't like to vouch for the French practitioners' humanitarian credentials!
For many, including the Celts and Druids, the wren used to be considered a sacred bird and it was most unlucky to harm it in any way. However, around this time of year, it would be hunted down and killed as a sacrifice.
On the Isle, this ritual hunting of the hapless bird would seem to have originally taken place on Christmas Day, when folk would head out in the early hours to hunt down and kill their prey, before bringing it back to the local church.
It would then be plucked and buried with much ceremony and singing in Manx.
The feathers of the dead bird were considered lucky and were believed to have the power to protect fishermen from shipwreck, to say nothing of a more general protection against witchcraft.
Later, the custom seemed to migrate, (something the wrens no doubt wished they had picked up on) to St Stephen’s Day on 26 December. Young men would chase down the birds, beating them from bushes with long sticks and general carousing.
A time for celebration...
They would suspend their dead quarry on top of a pole decorated with ribbons and evergreen leaves - which would then be paraded around the houses where dancing and singing would take place - before the feathers were distributed and hopefully some form of financial contribution would be made to the performers.
There is also a belief Hunting the Wren is carried out on the 26th to commemorate the martyrdom of St Stephen on the Feast Day which bears his name - Laa’l Steaoin - and a further line of thought suggests the hunt is an act of revenge against a witch who lured Manx men to their deaths in the sea, then escaped by turning into a wren and flying away.
As a punishment she was condemned to reappear each year in the guise of the bird to be hunted and killed. Today the wren atop the pole is represented by two gaily decorated hoops set at right angles although some representation of the wren itself may still be contained within.
So this Boxing Day, if you happen to be stopped in your tracks by what appears to be a group of people paying homage to a cake decoration on a pole, don't honk your horn or walk around, but stay and watch what just might be one of the oldest hunts known.
last updated: 04/04/2008 at 14:27