From the toy show to wrenboys – the appeal of uniquely Irish holiday traditions
In our house, St Stephens Day was always celebrated by going on ‘The wren’. Each year on the 26th of December, the youngest in the family don their winter coats and Santa hats and take off on a tour of the locality, singing a few songs and (hopefully) making a few bob.
In my head at least, the wren was always a highlight of the Christmas celebrations. Granted, I’ve no doubt that part of this was due to the fact that it paid quite well – the handful of coins we got at the door stacked up quickly enough, and if you were lucky, you managed to nab a few Roses on the way out. When you’re only old enough to receive money on special occasions (birthdays, communions, and the like), there is great novelty to earning that little bit of cash.
Now, of course, I appreciate other aspects of those memories of going on the wren – the time spent excitedly practising songs with siblings and cousins, the fact that we would be kindly chauffeured around to the houses because it was too chilly for us, frantically stacking up the coins at the end of the day to see if we’d bet last year’s record, and divvying it up among each of us and whatever charity was chosen to donate to that year. The whole practice of going on the wren was an occasion unto itself, and now, I remember those outings as fondly as the Christmas Days that happened alongside them.
Another tradition that sparked the same sort of joy around the holiday season was the toy show. The pantomime and hype of the Late Late Toy Show is what made the programme a cultural staple in Ireland, and if you grew up watching it, your memories of the holidays are probably closely interlinked with memories of toy show takeaways and trying to keep your eyes open for the final bits of the programme.
Like the wren, the Late Late Toy Show, and a handful of other traditions that I came to appreciate a little later on (looking at you, twelve pubs), a lot of the holiday practises I regard the most fondly tend to be unique to Ireland. Sure, these traditions were by no means followed to a T – the simple Santa hat made for a weak comparison to the full costumes donned by traditional wrenboys, we didn’t bother to put a faux dead bird on a stick to symbolise ‘hunting the wren’, and I’m not committed enough to actually cover twelve pubs – but a degree of that is expected, and customs change and are adapted over time.
In any case, among the hordes of practices that surface during this time of the year, the uniquely Irish ones are always the first that come to mind when I think about the holidays. Perhaps it’s the fact that with other customs such as setting up extravagant outdoor lights displays like they do in America or decorating gingerbread houses like they do in Germany – while being equally charming traditions that I’m sure others regard more fondly than some of the ones I prefer – the history is much more relevant.
For example, I definitely prefer the taste of gingerbread to Christmas fruit cake, but ‘stirring in a wish’ with my mother as she did with hers sells it for me. In the same sense, while going on the wren bears similarity to carolling, the mythology and national history behind it made it all the more special. The holiday season is a time rooted in family and nostalgia, and so the knowledge that your traditions were practiced by generations before you, and continue to be practiced each year, adds an entirely new dimension to the celebrations.
In any case, whether you prefer to celebrate with traditions from Ireland, traditions from abroad, traditions you’ve made up entirely yourself, or if you prefer not to celebrate at all, here’s hoping that the last stretch of 2021 bodes well for all of us, and that we have a happy and healthy New Year.