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You are in: Suffolk > Community > Features > The strange tradition of the Cutty Wren

Molly Dancer in Middleton

Molly Dancer in Middleton

The strange tradition of the Cutty Wren

Catching and killing a wren might not sound like a typical Boxing Day activity, but for people in Middleton near Leiston it's the basis of an ancient tradition that's still celebrated in the 21st Century.

St. Stephen's Day/Boxing Day is seen by many as a time to recover from the excesses of the day before. But on December 26, 2007 a group of dancers will be preparing for a nighttime parade around Middleton village.

Traditionally, Molly dancers with blackened faces and long coats would cavort around lanterns in the dark. A wren would then be caught, killed and fixed to a pole in a mass of holly and ivy.

These days a wooden wren is used instead but the tradition, called the Cutty (meaning small) Wren, is still going strong after being revived by the Old Glory Molly Dancers and Musicians on St. Stephen's Day, 1994.

Molly dancers in Middleton

Molly dancers in Middleton

Two weeks ahead of the big day, people got in the mood with some old fashioned Molly dancing to mark the village's annual Christmas street fayre.

"The tradition goes that labourers would blacken their faces with soot before dancing in the village for money to help them through the long winter," says one of the dancers, Paul Aldis.

"The disguise saved their embarrassment and also helped them avoid being arrested for begging. We love carrying on the ritual but it can be quite exhausting dancing in the dark and cold!''

Killing the king of birds

As well as dancing, there is also the parading of the artificial wren on a garlanded pole around the village.

Middleton is the only village in England where there's a recorded history of the ritual and it is believed to be one of the last places where the hunting of the Cutty Wren could be seen at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Allan Jobson, whose grandparents were the Barhams of Rackford Farm, Middleton, recounts in his book, An Hour-glass on the Run (1959), that when his grandfather was a boy in the mid-19th Century, he would go round Middleton with others on St. Stephen's Day.

They would catch and kill a wren and fasten it in the midst of a mass of holly and ivy to the top of a broomstick. Going from house to house they sang:

"The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze;
Although he is little, his family is great,
I pray you good landlady, give us a treat!"

In earlier times, the procession itself may have included fantastic characters such as hobby-horses, fiery dragons and rampant serpents whisking their tails about.

The culmination of the procession was the ceremonial burial of the wren, accompanied by dancing.

So If you happen to be in the village of Middleton on Boxing Day you too could be witness to an ancient tradition which until 10 years ago was almost lost.

Once darkness has fallen, the main street of the village begins to fill with crowds of people; soon a reverent silence falls as flaming torches approach to the sound of a slow drum beat.

last updated: 18/12/2007 at 15:38
created: 18/12/2007

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