The custom of hunting the wren has recently been revived in Suffolk (albeit with a wooden wren) - though it was long thought to be a Celtic prerogative. Rough at the Edges open their Waveney Heritage Centre show 'Our Christmas Past' with a wren song and lore as an example of a pagan midwinter custom.
A wren is barely a mouthful. It’s not a pest - if anything it helps keep pests under control. So why on earth could it be a custom to hunt a wren, kill it and tour the neighbourhood, proudly displaying the body? To be fair the wren hunt killed only the one bird and on only one day a year - St Stephens Day, December 26th The strictly truthful answer this question is, of course, that no-one really knows. But, naturally, there are many theories.
The theory that would establish the practice furthest back in time, suggests that the wren, as King of the Birds (see Part 1), is a substitute for the pagan practice of executing a human ‘king’ at midwinter. The sacrifice was a gift to the gods to ensure the return of the sun.
A more ‘Christian’ explanation is that the wren’s singing gave away the presence of the first martyr, St Stephen, to the authorities. So, once a year on his Saints Day (Dec. 26) it is permitted to punish wrens for this betrayal.
Lleu Llaw Gyffes, a Celtic hero, won his name by killing a wren. He strikes a wren with a stone "between the tendon and the bone of its leg". His mother, Arianrhod, responded "it is with a skillful hand that the fair-haired one has hit it". Gwydion, his foster father, then reveals himself and declares that “Lleu Llaw Gyffes;(the fair-haired one with the skillful hand) is his name now".
When we look hard at customs of the past they can seem strange to us but I wonder which Christmas customs will seem strange to our descendants. In a world forced to become more careful with natural resources will prodigious spending on superfluous items seem strangely primitive?