“This is a difficult choice, but I’ve picked ‘The King’ because it’s the loveliest of the songs accompanying the many visiting customs (such as carol singing) of the Christmas/midwinter season.
‘Hunting the Wren’ is my favorite of these door-to-door customs. On December 26, St. Stephen’s Day (the ‘Feast of Stephen’ or ‘Boxing Day’ in England and the first of the 12 days of Christmas), the teenage children go from door to door carrying a mock wren (smallest of the birds in northern Europe) that they call ‘The King.’ They are given money and treats, and they cry, ‘Please to see the King. The wren, the wren, the king of birds, St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze.’ And they sing, ‘Joy, health, love and peace, be all here in this place, by your leave we will sing concerning our king.’
While it is tempting to associate the reference with the Christmas story, this is not the new Christian child-king newly born in a manger. It’s a survival of a much older practice of celebrating the ritual death of the king at midwinter and having his power and wisdom passed on to the new king (as the light returns for spring) by visiting each member of the community.
The wren became king of the birds because in the great contest to choose their leader, the birds decided it would be the one that could fly the highest. This was pure politics; it was probably decided by the biggest birds who thought they could win. They all took turns from the smallest to the largest, until it was time for the eagle. But just before he took off, the wren (who runs and doesn’t fly and was so small that no one even thought to offer her a turn) dashed out and jumped on the back of the eagle. He never even noticed she was there.
Up flew the eagle, higher than any other bird, and tired himself out showing off. Just then the wren took off and fluttered higher still. The poor eagle had nothing left, and so the tiny wren became King by using her cunning and wit.
Cunning and wit, then, are the powers of the King (the skills or the gifts) that are taken from door to door and passed on to help people make it through the dark, long winter.
The song concludes:
‘Bold Christmas is passed
Twelfth night (January 6) is the last
And we bid you adieu
Great joy to the new.'”
Tony Barrand joins John Roberts, Fred Breunig and Andy Davis for the 36th touring season of Nowell Sing We Clear: A Pageant of Midwinter Carols, which will be performed at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Altamont at 3pm on Saturday. Presented by Old Songs, tix for the performance are $20; children 12 & under $5.