I was asked to do a blog on local traditions of Pembrokeshire. This could have ended up as some rehash of other people’s work. However, I decided to concentrate on one tradition which has personal connections. When I was a child of about eight my father told me that as a boy of the same age, growing up in Tenby pre- and post-First World War, he took part in the Tenby tradition of the “Cutty Wren”.
He said that on “Twelve NIght”, which was twelve days after the 25th of December, he and other boys went down to the marches and burrows behind the South Beach to look for a wren. If they found one, which was difficult in itself, and caught it, again difficult, it was put in a wicker cage and paraded round the streets. They would knock on doors and sing a song about the wren. In return they would get hot milk and mince pies. Eventually the wren would be released, no doubt a bit shocked but unharmed.
I thought no more about it until Steeleye Span, a folk/rock group those of a certain age will remember, had a song called “The King” on their second album in 1971. The lyrics sounded very familiar….
Joy, health, love, and peace be all here in this place
By your leave, we will sing concerning our King
Our King is well dressed, in silks of the best In ribbons so rare,
no king can compare We have travelled many miles, over hedges and stiles
In search of our King, unto you we bring
We have powder and shot to conquer the lot
We have cannon and ball to conquer them all Old Christmas is past,
Twelve-tide is the last And we bid you adieu, great joy to the new!
Not the same as my father’s song but similar enough to make me investigate further. I discovered that the tradition of the Wren and Twelve Night was common throughout the British Isles but Steeleye Span had collected the song from Pembrokeshire. It was in English because it came from the Englishry of South Pembrokeshire but there are also versions in Welsh.
The original tradition was much, much older and much darker. The wren represented the old year and the robin the new. They were the King and Queen of animals and birds. The old year had to be killed so the new year could continue. In other words it is the ancient tradition of sacrifice of an animal to appease the Gods. So the robin and wren would fight. The robin won and the wren was killed but the robin’s redbreast was a result of the blood from the fight. (Told you it got darker).
It is interesting that “Twelve NIght” is very close to the old New Year in the Julian, now Orthodox, calender. It is also interesting how many innocent old customs and songs have more sinister roots. Think of “Ring a ring a roses” which is about the Black Death. Sing it to yourself and it will become clear.
On the happy note, everyone, please, have a very happy New Year. Jenny Wren has been released and is now safe in her nest.