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
The Festival we know today originated at Queen's College, Oxford
in 1340. 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
. 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 lighted from the last year's ember...all found a place and a symbolic meaning in the procession.
This was the ceremony 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."
One well known festival in the United States is the one at Christ Church Cathedral in the city of Cincinnati, Ohio. In this highly theatrical festival men 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.
From the beginning, certain traditions have shaped the Boar's Head Feast. Every aspect must be authentic to the 14th century. A church service must be always be directly involved. The feast usually takes place during the Twelve Days of Christmas. The food in the ceremony must be homemade, this includes mince pie and plum pudding. 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. This was changed, though, during the early 1950s.