Winter Solstice – Robin and Wren

As winter approached, the people watched the Sun creep lower in the sky, rising later and setting earlier, as if weary. Then the Sun seemed to stop entirely. Would it return again, climbing higher? Or had all its energy gone forever?

In some traditions, this weakening of the Sun is linked to the weakening of the old King. At Midwinter, the Holly King is at his low point. The Oak King, resting since his Midsummer defeat, comes again to challenge Holly to battle. At the Winter Solstice, the Holly King is defeated and dies, making way for the reinvigorated Oak King who will usher in the waxing of the renewed Sun.

The Holly King has as his emblem the wren, and the Oak King’s bird is the robin. Traditions surrounding robin and wren are many and ancient. “The robin and the wren, God’s cock and hen” have been linked in mythology and with Christian lore throughout Europe.

The wren’s heritage is more ancient and may have its origins in Saturnalia, ancient Rome’s fertility festival. During the week-long orgy starting on 17 December, the role of master and slave was reversed, moral restrictions removed and rules of etiquette ignored.

The wren was the king of birds in Greek mythology, so killing one at this time of year represented the end of the old season. Wren mythology made its way to Bronze Age Britain, where woe betide anyone who dared harm these sacred birds of prophecy.

Strange, then, that one of the oldest folk rituals, once widespread in Britain and still surviving in Ireland and parts of Europe, is the St. Stephen’s Day wren hunt. Perhaps this is because the wren is also associated with deception and treachery.  One widely held belief is that a wren alerted the guards when St. Stephen was trying to escape, causing his death.

On 26 December, ‘wren boys’ armed with sticks beat hedgerows until a wren was caught and killed. The bird was hung from the top of an elaborately decorated pole and paraded to every house. A feather was plucked and given to each householder as a protection against witches.

Today, mostly around Cork, children go “hunting the wren.” Its ‘corpse’ (usually an effigy) is put on a pole, or sometimes in a basket. Wren boys go from home to home displaying the dead bird and begging the woman of the house for money “to bury the wren.” In times gone by, the least generous house could have the bird buried under their doorstep.

A variation of the ancient Wren hunt involved putting Robin and a Wren in a small cage to fight. Perhaps this ties into folklore in which the wren represented the old year and the robin the new. Depending on the tale, the birds either friends or foe. The Robin is also associated with the Wren in stories of Cock Robin and Jennie Wren – harking back to the idea that they were the male and female of a single species.

An older story tells how the wren became king of the birds: Whoever flew the highest would rule. The wren hid in the back of the eagle who reached greater heights than any other. When the exhausted eagle could climb no further, the wren popped out to fly higher yet.

There is plenty of folklore around robins, in which they are linked with charity, compassion, good luck, bad luck, fire and death. Many stories explain the origin of his red breast, including Christian legends:  When Jesus was crucified on the cross, a robin flew down and removed a thorn from the crown on his head (or sang to him) to relieve his suffering. The blood of Jesus stained his throat and chest.

In a similar tale, a robin flew into the stables where the newborn Jesus and Mary slept.  The bird noticed the fire had almost gone out and fanned the embers, singing his breast feathers.  Mary blessed him for his courage, and his feathers grew back red in recognition.

An alternate legend says its breast was scorched fetching water for souls in Purgatory.  Acts of kindness by robins also appear in the poems of Wordsworth, Blake and other romantic poets.  In the Babes in the Wood folktale and poem, robins covered the dead with moss, leaves and flowers.

For good luck in the new year, make a wish on the first robin you see before it flies away.  He is king now, until the wren returns at Midsummer.

The old poem Cock Robin and Jennie Wren has many verses describing the courting of Jenny Wren by Cock Robin, their wedding, and its disruption by the Cuckoo, who tries to carry Jenny off for his own. The Sparrow, trying to defend Jenny, shoots and kills Cock Robin by mistake.

W.S. Gilbert created a pantomime based on this story, in which Robin is revived at the end and reunited with his Jenny. A great punster, Gilbert described the two lovers as follows:

Cock-Robin (the Bird who has been the burd-en of many a rhyme, the Cock that no one can be Robin of his fame whose he-red-itary red breast can be recognised by hen-nybody)

Jenny Wren (the little Wren who has ren-dered up her liberty to the Dicky-Bird of her heart and nearly breaks it when he hops the twig)

The Wren Song

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat.

Chorus:
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren.

As I was going to Killenaule,
I met a wren upon the wall.
I took me stick and knocked him down,
And brought him in to Carrick Town.

Droolin, Droolin, where’s your nest?
Tis in the bush that I love best
In the tree the holly tree,
Where all the boys do follow me.

We followed the wren three miles or more,
Three mile or more, three miles or more.
We followed the wren three miles or more,
At six o’clock in the morning.

I have a little box under me arm,
Under me arm, under me arm.
I have a little box under me arm,
A penny or tuppence would do it no harm.

The Wren She Lies in Care’s Bed

In this old Scots song the wren represents winter and the robin summer.  As winter dies with the coming of the New Year, robin cares for the ailing wren.

The wren lies in her sickbed
In much misery and pining
When in came robin redbreast
With breads in sugared water and wine
Robin says, ‘will you sip this?”
And you’ll belong to me
No, not a drop, robin
For it has come too late

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