Boar's Head Feast
The Boar's Head Feast is probably the oldest continuing festival of the Christmas season.
This pageant is rooted in ancient times when the boar was sovereign of the forest. A ferocious beast, and menace to humans, it was hunted as a public enemy. At Roman feasts, boar was the first dish served. Roasted boar was a staple of medieval banquets. As Christian beliefs overtook pagan customs in Europe, the presentation of a boar's head at Christmas came to symbolize the triumph of the Christ Child over sin.
The festival we know today originated at Queen's College, Oxford, England. Legend has it that a scholar was studying a book of Aristotle while walking through the forest on his way to Midnight Mass. Suddenly, he was confronted by an angry wild boar. Having no other weapon, the resourceful Oxonian rammed his metal-bound philosophy book down the throat of the charging animal, whereupon the brute choked to death. That night the boar's head, finely dressed and garnished, was borne in procession to the dining room, accompanied by carolers singing "in honor of the King of bliss."
St. John's College
By 1607, an expansive ceremony was in use at St. John's College, Cambridge, England. There, the boar's head was accompanied by "mustard for the eating" and decorated with flags and sprigs of evergreen, bay, rosemary and holly. It was carried in state to the strains of the "Boar's Head Carol".
By then the traditional Boar's Head Festival had grown to include lords, ladies, knights, historical characters, cooks, hunters, and pages. Eventually, shepherds and wise men were added to tell the story of the Nativity. The whole was embellished with additional carols, customs and accoutrements. Mince pie and plum pudding, good King Wenceslas and his pages, a yule log lit from the last year's ember ... all found a place and a symbolic meaning in the procession.
At Hurstpierpoint College, it has been observed annually almost since the college's foundation in 1849 and may have been imported by a headmaster who was at Queen's College, Oxford. It now takes place on the first Wednesday in December after a short service in chapel for all, and heralds the feast which is held to acknowledge the work done by the college's Sacristans and choir. The boar's head is carried on a platter carried by four Sacristans and preceded by the mustard pot carried by a fifth. The remainder of the Senior School lines the cloisters which form three sides of the Inner Quadrangle, the fourth being formed by the chapel and dining hall. The lights are extinguished and the procession, its members carrying candles, moves from the east of the college through the cloisters lined by unusually silent students and back through the chapel to the vestry.
In the U.S.
This ceremony was brought to Colonial America by early British settlers and French Huguenots who had learned of the custom during a period of exile in England. They settled in New York, and were closely connected with the Episcopal Church and its universities. They established the festival as an annual Christmas observance. In 1926, the New York Evening Post described the Boar's Head as a "complex and rich tapestry" of "exquisite melodies."
The oldest continuous festival in the United States has been held annually at the Hoosac School in Hoosick, New York, for over 120 years. One other well known festival in the United States is at Christ Church Cathedral, in Cincinnati, Ohio. In this highly theatrical festival, hundreds of parishioners, musicians and actors march, dance, and sing as the Yule log is cut and the boar's head is marched through the cathedral.
Concordia University in Ann Arbor, Michigan has presented a Boar's Head Festival during the first weekend in December since 1977. Based on the presentation at Christ Church, Cincinnati, the festival is a campus tradition, involving over 150 faculty, staff, students, local school children, and members of the community. This performance contains continuous music, the story is sung through individual solos (Boars Head Carol, Good King Wenceslas), the Concordia Choir, and the audience. The spectacle is enlivened by the court jester, court dancers, the Concordia Recorder Consort, and the magnificent Schlicker pipe organ.
Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia celebrates the Boar's Head Ceremony annually. "Boar's Head is held in the Conant Center on the first Friday in December. It begins with a procession of the members of Omicron Delta Kappa, in academic regalia, carrying a roasted boar's head on a litter. The procession is followed by a reading of the Boar's Head story. The rest of the celebration consists of a concert featuring the University Singers and the Concert Winds, the lighting of the holiday tree and a reception sponsored by the Oglethorpe Student Association. The armorial crest of General James Edward Oglethorpe, which depicts four boars' heads, serves as the inspiration for this annual tradition".
Trinity United Methodist Church in Springfield, Massachusetts presents one of the longer and more involved renditions of the Boar's Head festival, complete with elaborate choreography and one or two newly composed pieces of music each year. Combined with the comedic "preparation festivities" which begin 45 minutes prior to the performance, the festival runs nearly two and a half hours. Members of the cast rehearse on a regular basis for nearly two months prior to performances.
The Boar's Head Feast tradition was brought to Canada in December 1910 by the members of the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto.[[Margaret McBurney, The Great Adventure; 100 Years at the Arts & Letters Club, pp 10 - 11 (Toronto, Malcolm Lester, 2012)] and has been celebrated annually ever since. The ceremony begins with the entry of the costumed principals led by a Jester and including the traditional characters representing a Sergeant-at-Arms, a Knight Templar, a Philosophy Student, and attendant Medieval Ladies, Candle Bearers, Riders and a Chaplain. A grace is said in Latin, and a toast made to Her Majesty. After the main course is completed, the President accompanies the entry and presentation of the Flaming Christmas Pudding. The Feast concludes with the singing of The First Noel.
Other presentations of the Boar's Head festival can be found at:
- Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut
- Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Saginaw, Michigan
- Lutheran Church in St. Charles, Missouri
- Saint Paul United Methodist Church in Louisville, Kentucky
- The First Church of Winsted in Winsted, Connecticut
- Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York
- Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio
From the beginning, certain traditions have shaped the Boar's Head Feast. A church service must be always be directly involved. The feast usually takes place during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Every aspect must be authentic to the 14th century; therefore, the food in the ceremony must be homemade, this includes mince pie and plum pudding, and if a boar cannot be used, a hog's head is dressed to represent the boar. It is roasted and garnished, but not eaten.
Adaptation is also a part of the tradition. At first, following the English custom, there were only men and boys involved. Today, women join in the ceremony, dressed in historical costumes of the 14th century. In England during the Second World War, the feast was reduced to a sermon and traditional Christmas carols. However, this was changed during the early 1950s.
- "Glossary of Oglethorpe Terms and Historical References". Oglethorpe University. Retrieved 22 May 2013.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-10-31. Retrieved 2014-10-31.
- The Queen’s College, Oxford
- St. John's College, Cambridge
- The Legend of the Boar
- Hurstpierpoint College