Monday, December 23, 2013

Hunting the Wren - Laura Strickland

Laura Strickland

In Medieval times in Britain, life was often arduous and difficult. Unless you were a knight or a member of the nobility, your day-to-day existence revolved around the constant struggle to survive. Rarely did you have enough food, sufficient fuel for your fire or adequate clothing. Working from sunup to sundown wasn’t just an adage; it was a fact of life. Among these unending chores, diversions must have been few.

No wonder our ancestors celebrated when and how they could, and no wonder holidays were cherished occurrences. Just think about it: a holiday offered a break in the drudgery and perhaps a respite, however brief, from the daily grind. People in Medieval Britain still lived close to the land and took their cues from the seasons. A good year in the fields could mean the difference between their families making it through the winter or feeling the pinch of want. And celebrating could buoy the spirits enough to keep winter’s darkness at bay, at least for a while.

Customs in Medieval England combined Christianity – mostly the provenance of the Church at that time – and older beliefs stemming from the earth-based religion that had reigned for thousands of years. The very word “holiday” is a variant of the words “holy day”, and meant a day when the Church gave folk leave to alter their routines. The Church calendar was full of Saints’ days, many of which fell on or near older days of Pagan importance. Just as churches tended to be built on prior holy Pagan sites, the Church must have realized it would be easier to overlay the old beliefs than convince people to abandon them.

St. Brigit’s Day was on February 2nd (now our Groundhog Day), and on the Pagan wheel of the year marked the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. All Saint’s Day struggled to supplant the importance of Samhain (our Halloween), one of the most significant days on the Pagan calendar, which denoted the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Christmas held sway over a portentous day indeed, the Winter Solstice. In ancient times, people in northern climes watched the life-giving sun disappear day by day, and darkness gain its hold on the Earth. Cold gripped the land and superstitious panic must have gripped our ancestors’ hearts. I think they can be forgiven for holding to any customs they believed might entice the sun back again.

And who can blame them for tossing an extra holiday into the mix at this dark time of year? St. Stephen’s Day fell on December 26th, now still celebrated as Boxing Day in Britain and Canada. It’s also the day for hunting the Wren. What has an innocent Wren to do with bringing back the sun, you ask? Well, the origins of the custom are varied and debated. Some say it stemmed from the Wren’s arguably devious nature: he once cheated in a contest among all the birds to see who could fly highest, by hitching a ride on the Eagle’s back. Or he might have represented the triumph of the ordinary in nature by surviving the Winter, a figure with which the common folk identified. On a less palatable note, he may have been a lingering remnant of the sacrifices that were once paid as a fee to the Gods on whom the people of the land relied. For on December 26th, the Wren was hunted over field and stile, captured or killed, and made King for the day.

Some of the best evidence we have of this custom survives in the lyrics of songs. The folk tradition thus expressed tells us that men or boys dressed up as mummers, often wearing costumes made of straw, and having pursued and attained their prize, then dressed it up in silks and ribbons – no small feat for people who could barely clothe themselves! The King might then be affixed to a pole and marched about the town, or he might be carried, dead, in a box from door to door, somewhat the way Trick or Treaters still go door to door today. The King who was deemed to be got up in the “finest” array elicited donations from the householder and in return the “Wren Boys” bestowed good luck on the household for the coming year.

So, if a crowd of ruffians appeared at your door when you still felt a certain sense of largesse following the Christmas celebration and showed you the corpse of a celebrated bird laid in a box, what would you do? With the threat of a hard Winter ahead and the equally frightening specter of want staring me in the face, I think I’d give them a draught of wassail if I had any, and whatever small change I could spare. Me, I’d want all the good luck I could get. And can this be the underlying reason the British have long presented boxed gifts to their postmen and other service people who come to their door on the 26th? Quite probably. Old traditions survive in the oddest of places.

In my new Historical Romance, Daughter of Sherwood, my main character is named for the Wren, but by whom she never knows – likely not her mother, Marian, who abandoned her soon after the death of her father, Robin Hood, and succumbed to her grief in a nunnery. But I like to think whoever did grant her that name did so for a reason, for my Wren possesses the same attributes as that mythical bird: its courage to survive, its valor when pursued by bands of bloodthirsty villagers or, indeed, the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men, and the determination to bring something better to her people in a new age, as in the new year. The same magic that infuses that ordinary brown bird, so I believe, also invests my heroine – an ordinary, brown-haired maid who learns what it means to love, and sacrifice, and ultimately fly.

As our holiday season approaches, I wish you health, happiness and all the luck bestowed by the little brown Wren! a Rafflecopter giveaway


Debra St. John said...

I love Robin Hood stories.

And thanks for the great history lesson on customs and where they come from. I've been learning a lot from this blog series.

Merry Christmas!

Karen Michelle Nutt said...

Robin Hood is one of my favorite legends.

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas! And here's to a Happy New Year!