CURRENT ISSUE:  OCTOBER 2023

Columbus Irish: King of the Birds

“Peace on earth… good will to men (and birds)!”

The Christmas season is full of traditions from both Celtic and Christian custom. The holly and ivy represent the green of nature and it is brought inside to make homes festive. The points of the leaves were also thought to keep out or slow down spirits who might harm the family.

Families sought to atone for the Bethlehem innkeepers by lighting a candle to welcome weary travelers. Loaves of bread and milk were left out to feed them.

One of the most interesting traditions surrounds the Feast of Stephen, the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death for his teachings. Irish tradition, especially in the west of Ireland, call it Wren Day. Groups of young boys dressed in costumes or straw masks travel about on the day after Christmas singing for food or money.

Anyone who has seen the Yankee Celtic Consort’s Christmas performance at Byrne’s Pub has probably heard the song describing this celebration. I never really caught all the words, but the rhythmic beat of the bodhran leads you along as if you were part of the procession:

People dressed in hay costumes referred to as wrenboys
Wrenboys dressed in straw for Wren Day in Ireland

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,

On St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,

Up with the kettle and down with the pan

Give us a penny to bury the "wran."

The tradition was that St. Stephen had been hiding from his persecutors when a wren gave away his hiding place. The mob then chased him down with stones and killed him, just as the boys do with the wren on St. Stephen’s morning. The dead bird is tied to a pole and carried along with their procession as they go house to house. The money they collect was often used later for a party for the village.

In recent years, the money and food collected was given to those in need. This hunt and sacrifice motif was also common in pagan tradition, as the wren was a symbol of wisdom and sacrifices of such sacred symbols would be made at year’s end.

As noted above, the wren was also called the king of all birds. This legend comes from a contest among the birds to see who was the greatest. As the eagle soared higher and higher, the wren followed under its wing. When the eagle could go no higher, the wren came out from under the eagle and flew several more feet above the eagle. When he returned to the ground, the wren boasted of his success and was honored as the king of all birds.

As we enter the holidays, let us remember the loved ones who have passed away and those who are less fortunate. These seem to be two universal Irish traditions that know no season and know no limit. Let us also light a candle and say a prayer that 2024 will be a year of peace and blessings.

I’ll see you down at the pub, I suppose.

Andrew Shuman

Andrew Shuman

*Andrew is a transplant to Columbus after graduating from The Ohio State University with a major in History and a minor in Political Science and Folklore. He is past president of the Shamrock Club and a lover of a good story and a pint. You can contact him at [email protected]

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