Joy, Health, Love and Peace be all here in this place . . .
Phyllis Kinney on the tradition of Hunting the Wren
Hunting the Wren’ in Wales usually took place between the 6th of January and the 12th which was Twelfth Night. It was a custom connected with luck-visiting and formed part of the celebrations around the winter solstice. The Wren-Hunt had a long tradition in Britain, especially in Ireland and Wales, though the custom was also practiced in other parts of the British Isles, including Scotland and the Isle of Man, as well as England. Customs change over the centuries but basically it involved a party of young men who would go out and catch a wren — the smallest of all the birds. Sometimes it would be killed but sometimes it would be put alive in a little cage which they called his ‘elor’ or bier and dead or alive they would carry it in procession through the neighbourhood singing songs praising the wren as the King of the Birds. They always called at the ‘big house’ during their procession for there they would be invited in and have food and wassail and sometimes money.
In Pembrokeshire they called the period of the wren-hunt custom ‘Twelfth-tide’. There, the wren-house was a little wooden cottage dressed with ribbons and the wren was inside. Outside the door they would sing
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…
Old Christmas is past Twelfth-tide is the last
And we bid you adieu – Great joy to the new!
In north Wales the song was different – different words in a different metre and sung to a different tune. The verses are alternately question and response, that is the first verse asks a question and the second verse responds, usually with a description, often humorous, of the wren-hunt and its outcome:
“Where are you going?” “Going to the woods”
“What will you do there? “We’ll hunt the wren”
“Where will you find him?” “Under a bush”
“How will you get him home?” “With horse and cart”
“How will you cook him?” “In a big pan” etc. etc.
Although several wren-hunt songs were collected in north Wales there appears to be no description of the custom there, but a note in the Welsh Folk-Song Society Journal I, page 106 mentions an illiterate farm labourer near Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant who sang a version of the wren-hunt song. “He used to render it in a kind of chant exceedingly interesting to listen to, and often have I seen his fellow-servants crowding to the stable-loft to hear him sing and to see him act it.” The reference to acting suggests that the various verses might have been acted out as part of the ritual.
The wren-hunt custom has long ago died out in Wales, but it seems to be undergoing a revival in the Isle of Man where they have day-long celebrations with dancing in the town and large instrumental groups accompanying the wren processions. In Ireland also ‘Hunting the Wren’ is beginning again after almost dying out. Fortunately enough old people remember how it was done so that the custom is being passed on once again. In Wales the wren songs are no longer connected with the custom but they still exist. Sung socially, and often seasonally, they are sometimes rollicking, sometimes dramatic, and deserve to be part of your holiday repertoire this year.
This article first appeared in Ontrac magazine