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The Boar's Head Festival. This is from an 1855 plate of the Illustrated London News. Click for bigger photo.
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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Christmas Online™

The Boar's Head Festival, from Family Christmas Online™

Welcome to a few pages celebrating one of the oldest - and possibly strangest - Christmas traditions that is still in use today. It is an English tradition that resulted from a combination of ancient feasts with Christian traditions.

Why the Boar? - Since ancient days, the boar was the most dangerous - and tastiest - game sought by hunters in what we now call Great Britain. When possible, it was the centerpiece of all great feasts, pre-Christian and Christian alike.

Why Just the Head? - Unlike a roast pig, which you could carry to the table whole and carve up there, a boar might weigh several hundred pounds and be too big or take too long to cook in one piece. So the boar would be butchered and prepared before the feast, but the head would be decorated and brought in as a tribute to the mighty hunter who had brought it down.

The Tradition Becomes "Christian" - The earliest Anglo-Saxons who invaded Britain (and drove out many Christian Celts) had a religion similar to the ancient Vikings, but they were soon followed by Christian missionaries. As Christianity began to change the Anglo-Saxons, the culture of the Anglo-Saxons also began to flavor English Christianity as well. British and English saints began to be added to the church registry, and ancient pagan festivals were often given "Christian meanings"

The "Christianized" Boars' Head festival took the tradition of presenting the boar's head to the hunter and turned it sideways - the boar became a symbol for Death, which Jesus "slew" at His resurrection. So the festival honors Christ as the "mightiest hunter of them all."

The Queen's College Legend - Tradition traces the most popular version of the "Boar's Head" festival to Queen's College, in Oxford, England. According to legend, a student who was attacked by a boar on Christmas Eve in 1340 overcame the animal by ramming a book of Aristotle down its throat. At the subsequent Christmas-day feast, pork was on the menu. But, in honor of Christmas, the boar's head was presented, not to the hapless scholar, but to the Christ Child whose birth was being celebrated.

When possible, medieval sights and sounds are part of the feast.  Click to see larger picture.The Festival Grows - As the festival spread to other parts of England, the presentation of the decorated boar's head grew into a sort of parade. People who were dressed as fourteenth-century pages, cooks, jugglers, lords and ladies joined the procession singing carols. Many other traditions and costumes have been added since, including characters from the Christmas story and other medieval Christmas traditions. You will never see the same Boar's Head festival twice.

The festival described here is based on several festivals that follow about the same pattern, including the festival presented for many years by the Grace United Methodist Church, in Dayton Ohio. Some of the photos are from Grace United's 2007 Christmas Celebration Page

This is an Albertine Randall Wheelan painting used on a Christmas Card in the early 20th century. Click for a larger picture.

The Festival Opening

Prelude -Usually instrumental and or choral ensembles performing Renaissance-era hymns and Christmas songs.
The Opening Bell - A gong or ringing of the church bells sounds the hours.*
The Christmas Sprite - A small child representing This Christmas Sprite is from Grace United Methodist Church, Dayton Ohio, 2007 celebration. Click for bigger photo.the spirit of Christmas carries a taper to the altar. An adult (often the pastor of the church hosting the festival) uses the taper to light the large Festival Candle and presents it to the congregation.
The Lord and Lady of the Feast - The Lord and Lady of the Manor welcome all present.
The Boar's Head is Presented - While the Boar's Head Carol is sung, a company of singers brings in the boar's head and sets it on the altar. Other "steaming" dishes representative of the period are also presented, such as plum puddings and mince pies.

The Boar's Head Carol

    The boar’s head in hand bring I,
    Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary.
    I pray you, my masters, be merry
    Quot estis in convivio.**
      Caput apri defero
      Reddens laudes Domino

    The boar's head, as I understand,
    Is the rarest dish in all this land,
    Which thus bedeck'd with a gay garland
    Let us servire cantico.****
      Caput apri defero
      Reddens laudes Domino

    Our steward hath provided this
    In honor of the King of Bliss;
    Which, on this day to be served is
    In Reginensi atrio.*****
      Caput apri defero
      Reddens laudes Domino

    The mightiest hunter of them all
    We honor in this festal hall
    Born of a humble Virgin mild,
    Heaven's King became a little child:
      Caput apri defero
      Reddens laudes Domino

    This photo is from the celebration at Grace United Methodist's 2007 celebration. Click for bigger photo.He hunted down through earth and hell
    That swart boar Death until it fell.
    This mighty deed for us was done,
    Therefore sing we in unison:
      Caput apri defero
      Reddens laudes Domino

    Let not this boar's head cause alarm,
    The huntsman drew his power to harm.
    So death, which still appears so grim,
    Has yielded all its power to Him!
      Caput apri defero
      Reddens laudes Domino

Other Presentations

Now additional celebrations of Christmas cheer are presented, often with congregational songs between each presentation. When one group of presenters is done, they step aside to make room for the next group, but they add their voices to the congregational singing. The additional presentations may include (in almost any sequence):
This painting is from a Clapsaddle Christmas card. Click for bigger picture.Other Groups in Procession - Cooks, peasants, lords and ladies, jugglers, church officials, all dressed in 14th-century English costumes and representing the "high" and "low" of society.
Good King Wenceslas - The carol "Good King Wenceslas" is sung and acted out. The characters may pantomime, or the King and Page may sing their lines, with the chorus or congregation singing all of the other lines.
Carolers - Renaissance-era revelers may lead carols such as "Here We Come a Caroling"
The Yule Log - This may come in with the carolers or in a separate presentation. Again, traditional carols such as "The Holly and the Ivy" are sung. If "Deck the Halls" is sung, there may be a symbolic "decoration" of the auditorium, such as a Christmas tree being unveiled, or banners being unfurled.
The Shepherds and Magi - The shepherds may lead in singing of "Angels We have Heard on High" and similar songs. The Magi representing Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar may sing their respective verses to "We Three Kings," while the congregation joins in on the rest of the song. One advantage in placing the Bible characters last is that songs like "O Little Town of Bethlehem" can be used to help transition the ceremony to a time of worship.

The Festival Closing

The cast of Grace United's festival comes to join in congregational singing at the end of the ceremony. Click for bigger photo.Congregational Worship - Although there may be congregational singing throughout the ceremony, many groups close with a congregational song or three. On a song like "O Come All Ye Faithful," all of the presenters may crowd back to the front to represent the world coming to Christ.
Recessional - Led by the boars' head, and accompanied by music, the presenters briskly leave the auditorium by the center aisle. Last of all, as the room darkens, the pastor and Christmas Sprite leave, carrying their respective candles. The gong or church bells sound the end of the ceremony.

This photo is from Grace United's celebration. Click for bigger photo.* At Grace United Methodist Church in Dayton, Ohio, a regiment of Beefeaters, traditional guardians of the King procedes slowly up the aisle, then stands guard over the following ceremonies. The Beefeater costumes are not exactly valid for the fourteenth century, but they look very traditional and impressive.

**Quot estis in convivio means "when you are feasting."

***Caput apri defero Reden laudes Domino means "The head I carry giving praise to the Lord." (I warned you this was a little medieval.)

****Servire cantico means "serve with a song."

*****Regimensi atrio means "the monarch's hall."

Other Boar's Head Links

  • The Boar's Head Celebration as performed by St. Stephen’s Anglican Church, Athens, Texas, on Sunday, December 30, 2007. If that link doesn't work, click here.

  • The Boar's Head Celebration as performed by the Third Presbyterian Church, Rochester, New York, on January 5 and 6, 2008. If that link doesn't work, click here.

    God grant you and your loved ones grace and a spirit of generosity and service this season.

    Paul D. Race, Family Christmas Online

    If you have any corrections, comments, or additions you would like to make about this article, please contact me and I will be glad to hear from you. God bless - Paul

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