Thursday, December 11, 2014

Put Some Soul in Our Solstice: Aine Minogue's Garden of Song

            Aine Minogue whose traditional Irish harp and Celtic roots music lends itself especially well to celebrating certain fundamental human practices such as observing solstice days has a song about "Hunting the Wren."
            The tradition of hunting the wren is rooted somehow in both the Biblical account of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen and folk traditions connected to him. And since the St. Stephen's Day is Dec. 26, his story becomes seasonal material.
            The day doesn't have a happy origin. Regarded as the first martyr of the  Christian church based on the account in the book of Acts of the Apostles, Stephen aroused some enmity in his role as deacon of the church in Jerusalem, was summoned by local authorities to face charges of blasphemy, made a long fiery speech denouncing his accusers, and was promptly stoned to death in consequence.
            How this history leads the Celts in Ireland and Britain to observe his saint's day by "hunting the wren" is not obvious.
            The missing explanation, provided by Aine, is the folk tale version of his martyrdom in which the wren -- "the king of all birds," according to one old carol -- bears guilt for telling the authorities where to find Stephen. The wren "betrayed" Stephen, and therefore a wren his hunted and displayed to locals in exchange for some offering.
            As the website tells us, "birds hold a special place in the Celtic imagination." And the wren, one of the smallest common woodland birds, is accorded great importance as the wisest of them all. "Some believe the word 'dreoilín' (Gaelic for 'wren') has its roots in the term 'Druid's bird' and that it acted as as messenger between this world and the next," the site states.
            According to tradition, catching a wren on Dec. 26 was also believed to bring good luck. In more modern times, "hunting the wren" means musicians and camp followers roam from house to house playing music and passing the hat.
            "It's like your Halloween," Aine told me last week when I spoke to her about an upcoming concert.
            Ah ha, I replied, it's for children. Oh no, she told me, everybody does it.
            Aine, who who grew up in County Tipperary and studied the harp at Bunratty Castle, told me she remembers taking part in the tradition herself. Probably, I suspect, as a musician.
            The song that acquainted me with this peculiar custom is often performed at the Christmas Revels, the solstice/Christmas song-and-dance roots festival given every year in Cambridge and other cities. Called "The Wren, The Wren," it goes:

The Wren, the Wren the king of all birds, St. Stephenses day, he was caught in the furze. Although he is little, his honor is great, Rise up, kind sir, and give us a trate.
We followed this Wren ten miles or more Through hedges and ditches and heaps of snow, We up with our wattles and gave him a fall And brought him here to show you all.
For we are the boys that came your way To bury the Wren on Saint Stephenses Day, So up with the kettle and down with the pan! Give us some help for to bury the Wren!

            Aine's website says further that the "wren boys" are led in the hunt by a costumed character called the "hobby horse," distinguished by a wooden head with snapping jaws fixed to the shoulders of this leader of the revels. The hobby horse plays the role of a cut-up today, its origins lost to the Decemberish mists of time -- that wintry-eve mix of cold rain, early dark, and the recurrent impulse in human culture to celebrate the return of the sun and the promise of better days to come, while saluting the good times of the past.
            Aine Mingoue will be performing her own instrumental composition, "The Hunt for the Wren," along with other original and traditional songs at her Solstice Day concert in Hingham on Dec. 21. The piece is s lively, melodic, uptempo and also, in some recognizable if ineffable way, just a little bit haunting.