The Boar’s Head is probably the oldest continuing festival of the Christmas season. On its 600th anniversary in 1940, it was first celebrated at Christ Church, Cincinnati.
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. Like our Thanksgiving turkey, 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 in 1340. Legend has it that a scholar was studying a book of Aristotle while walking through the forest on his way to Christmas 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.”
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, still sung in the Christ Church ceremony.
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 the Bouton family, persecuted French Huguenots who had learned of the custom during a period of exile in England. The Boutons settled in Troy, New York, and were closely connected with the Episcopal church and its schools, including Hoosac School where their descendant became Rector in 1888. He established the festival which had meant so much to his family 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.”
Is it any wonder, then , the the Reverend Nelson Burroughs wished to bring this tradition with him when he was called to be the Rector of Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati in 1939? In Troy, he had known the Hoosac Boar’s Head ceremony as a school festival set in a dining hall. It was he who gave it a church setting.
From the beginning, certain traditions have shaped the Christ Church Cathedral Boar’s Head. Every aspect must be authentic to the 14th century. The Dean must be always be directly involved. Performances always take place the weekend between Christmas and New Year’s Day which is the epiphany season. The food in the ceremony must be homemade. This includes the huge mince pie and plum pudding which are always eaten by the cast after the final performance. With boars being in short supply in the forests of Cincinnati, 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 in the cast, fifty in all. Consequently, in the war years of 1946 and 1946 the ceremony was reduced to a homily with the traditional music. From 1955 to 1956, while a new church was being built, the festival was held in the Masonic Temple. When the new church opened in 1957, the Boar’s Head processions were expanded to accommodate different aisles and entrances.
The music of the Boar’s Head owes much to Frank Butcher. Originally from Canterbury Cathedral, he unearthed, arranged and composed the music from the Hoosac School ceremony. In 1962, Frank Levy, a cellist with the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra and graduate of Julliard was commissioned to reorchestrate the music for Christ Church Cathedral.
Women joined the ceremony in 1973, opening up new possibilities for 14th-century historical characters and costumes. Today the cast encompasses over one hundred fifty in the ceremony with about seventy people working behind the scenes.
Christ Church Cathedral presents this Festival as a gift to the people of Cincinnati. It is not a story of tunes and times past and gone. It is a living story told by modern day minstrels and echoed in all of us. These performances are given with our best wishes for a blessed and joyous season.