Burying the Wren

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Medieval burial from a stained glass window An essential part of the exaggerated customs of Hunting the Wren is a mock burial for the wren, and mournful dirges sung over his grave. The party afterwards can include a traditional bag-pudding. As far as I know, it isn’t recorded anywhere which songs exactly were sung for dirges but the song When Good King Arthur Ruled This Land is sung as a dirge for the (temporarily) dead sword dancer in the Ampleforth Play, one of the mummers’ plays which is most appropriate for celebrating the rebirth of the Sun on the Winter Solstice or Christmas. It is also an appropriately ridiculous song to sing as a dirge for burying the wren, because it is just so silly. That dirges were sung for burying the wren is recorded in folklore reports about the custom of Hunting the Wren in Manx Island and elsewhere according to the Golden Bough by James George Frazer, MacMillan & Co. Ltd., London, 1919-1920 (12 vol. edition). It is also reported when people used a live wren for the Wren Processions as sometimes happened, they just let it go at midnight. [fuggle26]

This part of the tradition of Hunting the Wren is most probably used at the end of the Wren Procession. According to myth, the death of the Sun (or of the Wren (Rhiannon, the Queen) understood to be the Queen of Heaven) is thought to occur at the Winter Solstice, that is, when the Sun is very weak. Then the rebirth or new birth of the Sun is celebrated on the day after the winter solstice. This is now celebrated generally at Dec. 25th or 26th (Boxing Day), though properly on the day after the Long Night of the Winter Solstice on Dec. 21st.

When Good King Arthur Ruled this Land
This song is also called Good King Henry, and there is sheet music for Good King Arthur on the Mama Lisa page. Of course, here you have to sing it like a dirge, slowly and mournfully and in a minor key.

When good King Arthur ruled this land,
He was a goodly king;
He took three pecks of barley meal,
To make a bag-pudding.

A bag-pudding the King did make,
And stuffed it well with plums,
And in it put two lumps of fat,
As big as my two thumbs.

The King and Queen did eat thereof,
And noblemen beside;
And what they could not eat that night,
The Queen next morning fried.

Having buried the wren, you can then take all the food that you have collected in the Wren Procession (traditionally, flour, butter and eggs) and make a bag-pudding, which is a traditional food at Christmas, or the Winter Solstice. Of course, you will need the recipe for it.

King Arthur’s Bag Pudding
Bag puddings are traditionally steamed for hours. Here is a relatively simple recipe, and it is rather small. It won’t feed very many noblemen.

1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup of raisins (or plums according to tradition)
2 cups of any kind of bread
1/4 cup of butter, softened
3 eggs
2 cups of milk or water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt

This was originally tied up in a cloth bag, or clamped down in special little tins. But you can use a double boiler, (or use a glass casserole, that will fit inside a pot with a lid). Oil the casserole. Mix sugar and raisins in the casserole. Put bread on top of raisins. Beat eggs, add remaining ingredients, pour over bread cubes. Cook over simmering water for 1 1/2 hours.

It is sometimes the custom to have a bag pudding made in a spherical shape and when it is served, brandy is poured over it and it is lit on fire. That might be considered to represent the Sun, though I don’t know how old this custom is--it seems Victorian to me.

We have another song for burying the wren, sung in the Isle of Man. Although there are various explanations for why it is sung this way, it is probably a dirge for the wren. Information is given on the Manx Ballads & Music, edited by A. W. Moore, printed & published by G & R Johnson, Douglas, Isle of Man, 1896, which is on Manx Ballads with the music on page 227 and words on p. 68.

The words in Manx and English run:

Kiark Katreeney marroo;
Gow's y kione,
As goyms ny cassyn,
As ver mayd ce fo'n thalloo.

Katherine's hen is dead;
Take thou the head,
And I will take the feet,
And we will put her under ground.

Katherine's Hen is Dead music

And there is a recording of the music for Kiark Katreeney Marroo by Phynnodderee on YouTube.

© 2007, last updated 12/17/16, piereligion.org/burywren.html