Winter Wassailing, Irish Wren Day and Preserving Local Tradition in Modern Times
By Brian Kaller
When my daughter was little, she used to jump into bed with me on cold December mornings and tell me all about Santa, or what “St. Necklace”, brought her or about a dream she had the night before. Where we live in the Irish countryside, Christmas was small and somewhat isolated, but that made them meaningful — I don’t remember the presents I bought, but I’ll remember those moments until I die.
This year, many people are upset that they will be celebrating an unusually small and isolated Christmas, without the usual shopping and giant gatherings. I understand being separated from family, as I’ve been separated from mine in America for many years. I will, however, point out that “normal” Christmases aren’t always healthy or relaxing for many people I know.
Every year, we feel like we have to spend too much, eat too much, drink too much, listen to the same terrible rock songs, watch certain television specials, put up enough lights to make our house visible from space and pretend to be cheerful when we are not. There’s nothing sacred about these pop culture traditions, though; Santa Claus and many of the carols we sing are of surprisingly recent invention, often less than a hundred years old, and often created as advertising campaigns.
I’m not trying to be a Grinch about this — I told my daughter about Santa, and I enjoy the occasional Christmas song. I simply don’t feel obliged to hear all the songs, over and over, for a few months. What’s more, the new ones are squeezing out many local and truly traditional family rituals that date back longer than we can measure.
Celebrating Irish Wren Day
Take one example here in Ireland: The day after Christmas was called Wren Day — like the bird — and local families used gather in the nearby woods for a ritual called the “hunting of the wren”. Local men dressed up in Robin Hood outfits, calling themselves “wren boys,” as they held a toy wren and told the children stories of the wren being the cleverest of all birds. They warned of the Straw Boys who wanted to hunt the wren, but how they were there to protect it.
As they told the story to the children, though, other local men dressed in straw costumes — the Straw Boys come to life — snuck up behind them, grabbed the wren and ran off, through the woods, with the Wren Boys and all the children giving chase. After all the children had been nicely exhausted, while their parents sat back sipping tea around the fire, the Wren Boys and children came back holding the wren in triumph. The Wren Boys and Straw Boys shook hands, made peace, and the wren served as King of Birds for another year.
I used to bring my daughter to this ceremony when we first moved to rural Ireland, where it was still practiced. In the last few years, however, the local Wren Day was abandoned, as insurance costs for putting on an event no longer justified the dwindling number of people who showed up. A ritual that might date back to Druid times, 2,000 years ago or more, is another casualty of the Great Forgetting of our era. My daughter might be one of the last people who will remember it.
Take wassailing as another example: neighbours walked from house to house carolling and being invited inside, giving everyone a chance to meet their neighbours. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen anyone do this in a long time, nor do many people these days feel comfortable introducing themselves to their neighbours.
Many families do use Christmas to see loved ones, share meals, sing songs together, and tell old stories, and that’s wonderful. But here’s the thing: People used to do these things every day. Here in Ireland, for example, wassailing wasn’t just once a year, but all through the winter.
Neighbours gathered at each others’ homes, brought instruments, played music, sang songs, and told stories that broke up the long darkness. It allowed each family to share what they had, making deposits in a community favour bank. It strengthened the feeling of community, so that burdens were lessened because they were shared, and joys were heightened because they were shared. Every day used to be more like the best parts of Christmas today.
This year, when many of us are strapped for cash or will have an unusually quiet and empty Christmas, you have permission to ignore the usual spending, eating and drinking extravaganzas. Perhaps you can turn off the television, put away the phones, go for walks, read A Christmas Carol to your children, make gifts with them, and perhaps go carolling at the doors of your elderly neighbours. You’re not here for the holiday; it’s here for you, and you decide how to enjoy it.
When I was raising my daughter in the countryside, every Christmas was small and cozy, yet we also made them sacred. The holiday was our time for comfort and joy, not pop songs and debt. Those moments, with her climbing into bed with me and sharing her contagious awe, were what was holy, and when I prayed, they were the engine of my gratitude.
Traditional Irish Wassail Punch Recipe
- 4 bottles red wine (I used Merlot)
- 2 bottles water (refilled wine bottles)
- 1 cup cherries (I used rose hips for taste and haws for colour, but cherries will do.)
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 orange, zested and squeezed into the punch
- 2 tablespoons grated ginger
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon powdered chocolate
1. Empty the bottles of red wine into a pot. Refill two of the bottles with water and then empty the water from them into the pot. Set the pot on the stove and turn on low heat until the contents are hot but not boiling.
2. Place the cinnamon stick and cherries into the pot. When contents are hot, take a cup of the mixture out of the pot, mix in the ginger, cayenne, honey, lemon juice and chocolate, and when it is well mixed, pour that back into the pot.
3. Keep the wassail on low heat for serving.
Brian Kaller is a former U.S. newspaper editor who moved to rural Ireland years ago to study traditional ways of life and write about it. He has written for the American Conservative, the Dallas Morning News, Low-Tech Magazine and other publications. Connect with Brian on his blog, Restoring Mayberry, and read all ofhis GRIT posts here.
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