We’re about to celebrate an Irish Christmas custom that has its roots in an unusual ritual going back centuries, and you’re invited.
It’s the feast of St. Stephen—December 26—and the Irish conferred upon this holy commemoration a distinctly unusual twist, which we’ll get to.
Sponsored by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann-Delaware Valley, the local chapter of a worldwide organization that celebrates traditional Irish music, dance, language and culture, the annual Wren Party begins at 7 p.m. the night after Christmas. It takes place at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 235 Limekiln Pike in Glenside, Montgomery County.
The doors are open to anyone who wants to celebrate the holidays in a traditional and uniquely Irish way. Cost of admittance for CCÉ members is $10. Non-members $15. Kids under 12 are admitted for free. Treats and goodies are gratefully accepted. Beverages will be available.
This will be a big year for the party, and aside from the usual night of rollicking tunes from a live band and enthusiastic Irish dance, there’s a great treat in store.
“It’s the 20th anniversary of the Wren Party,” says Katherine Ball-Weir, president of the local Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann chapter. “We’ve been able to present this annual event in the Irish community all those years, so in honor of the big anniversary year, we decided to invite some special guests to help in the celebration. And so Shannon Lambert Ryan and Fionán de Barra, who front the Irish group Runa, will be joining us.”
So where does the idea for a Wren Party come from?
Legend has it that St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was hiding from his enemies, and his place of refuge was given away by the chattering of a wren. There’s yet another legend that suggests a wren gave away Irish soldiers as they were creeping up on on a camp of Viking marauders in the 700s.
Regardless of the origin, a custom evolved in which Irish village boys dressed in colorful costumes would hunt a wren, tie it to a stick and parade it around the town. The “wren boys” or “straw boys” would go door to door collecting money for a big village hoop-dee-do.
The custom is still recalled in Ireland today—although in a far more civilized way, with absolutely no wrens being harmed—with fake wrens on a stick.
At the Wren Party, those old customs are recalled and celebrated.
“The Wren Party is a unique Irish event, and we are carrying on a very, very long tradition of celebrating with music and dance, and we have our own version of the straw boys going from house to house with a wren hat parade,” says Ball-Weir. “We encourage the guests to make and bring a hat with a bird on it. People parade around and we give prizes for the best hats.
“It is the only party of its kind in the Philadelphia area. People look forward to coming back every year. We tend to get a nice crowd of musicians who join us, and we’re really looking forward to having Rosemarie Timoney’s dancers with us again. Rosemarie has been one of the big supporters of the Wren Party.”
One of the most popular features of the party is dancing, and if you don’t know how to dance, someone will help you out. Everyone is encouraged to get up and give it a whirl—literally.
What’s more, the party is multigenerational.
“We have very young kids and grandparents,” says Ball-Weir. “It’s fun for the whole family, which is another part of the tradition. Everyone should come out and enjoy the night.”