The old English custom of hunting the wren on this day may be the remnant of an ancient midwinter sacrifice. The official reason given was that the wrens chattering in the bushes gave away St Stephen’s hiding place, leading to his martyrdom. The usually sacred and protected bird was ceremonially hunted and its decorated corpse carried about to bring luck.
The Wren, the Wren, the King of all Birds
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze
Although he be little, his honor is great
Therefore, good people, give us a treat.
The custom still survives in Ireland and the Isle of Man where the bird’s corpse is replaced by a potato stuck with feathers. It’s not clear if the children even bothered to create a mock Wren in Deborah Tall’s description of how the holiday was celebrated on an island in Ireland in the 1970s:
St. Stephen’s Day, the children went pagan and mad, roaming the island in gangs, bursting in doors, unannounced, masked, painted, bedraggled, piping, dancing, and singing at the top of their lungs in their ritual “hunting of the wren.’ Cookies and pennies buy off their shrieks, the players curtsy and bow, then streak out through the rain to their next stage, indefatigable.
Deborah Tall, Island of the White Cow, Atheneum 1986