Many years ago, all the birds of the world gathered to decide which of them would be their king.
After many days of debate, they decided that they would hold a contest: whichever bird could fly the highest would be the king.
Thus, on the day of the competition, all the birds took off into the air. The small song birds quickly tired, with their fragile wings unable to carry them far. They were soon joined by the ducks, crows, and many others. In short order, only the strongest of the eagles still climbed into the sky.
The eagle climbed higher and higher, until the last of his competition gave up and returned to earth.
Proidly, he congratulated himself, and began his descent. As he was falling, he heard a small bright voice above him calling “I am king! I am king!” It was the little brown wren, fluttering above him. She had carefully, quietly, hidden among his feathers, and ridden his back into the sky.
The eagle was furious, but too exhausted from the competition to fly higher.
When the wren landed the small birds cried in joy and surprise. They were sure that one of the larger birds would win the competition, while the large birds were furious. “You only won through trickery and cunning, and that’s not fair,” they complained.
“Eagle would have won through strength and brawn. Why is that better than cunning? If you have your doubts name another challenge and I will win once more,” the little wren replied.
The large birds chatted among themselves, and came up with a solution, a new competition. Whichever bird can swoop the lowest would be the king of the birds.
Thus the birds began the new competition, diving down to glide along the ground. Wren saw a small mouse-hole in the earth and climbed into it, calling out “I am king! I am king! I am the lowest!”
The large birds were furious, and decided that the wren could be the king, but she would never rule them. They each took turns standing guard at the hole, waiting to kill the wren if she tried to climb out.
Days passed, and wren stubbornly remained in her hole until one night, when the owl was guarding the hole, watching the wren with large yellow eyes.
When the morning sunlight peeked over the horizon, it momentarily blinded the owl.
The wren saw this as her chance, and quickly escaped from the hole.
The little brown wren is still today the king of the birds, but she is so afraid of the eagles and hawks that she stays hidden in hedges and bushes.
They will kill her if given the chance, as they are ashamed that she won the competitions.
In any case, her name in German (Zaunkönig, king of the hedges) and in Dutch (Winterkoninkje, little king of winter) recalls this tale.
This story is based on a traditional folktale from the British Isles. And, not by chance, the wren is a small brown bird commonly referenced in Celtic folklore that symbolizes life, energy, and cleverness.
On December 26th, the feast day of St. Stephen, it was traditional to hunt the wren in a number of countries across Europe. The bird would be placed on a decorated poll, and paraded through the village. In modern times a fake bird is used, and the day is celebrated with music and dancing.
The wren celebration may have descended from Celtic mythology, as a Samhain or midwinter sacrifice or celebration. Celtic mythology considered in fact the wren a symbol of the past year. In the Isle of Man, the hunting of the wren is associated with an ancient enchantress or queen of the fairies named Tehi Tegi. She was so beautiful that all the men of the Island followed her around in hope of marrying her, and neglected their homes and fields. Tehi Tegi led her suitors to the river and then drowned them. She was confronted, but turned into a wren and escaped. She was banished from the Island but returns once a year, when she is hunted.
The same tradition may also have been influenced by Scandinavian settlers during the Viking invasions of the 8th to 10th centuries. There are a variety of associated legends, such as a wren being responsible for betraying Irish soldiers who fought the Viking invaders by beating its wings on their shields, in the late 1st and early 2nd millennia, and for betraying the Christian martyr Saint Stephen, after whom the day is named. This mythological association with treachery is a possible reason the bird was hunted on St. Stephen’s Day, or why a pagan sacrificial tradition was continued into Christian times.