Since 1939, Christ Church Cathedral has hosted our annual Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival the weekend following Christmas. Adults and children from across the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio and from elsewhere in the community join us to serve in the cast and crew.
We consider our presentation of the Boar’s Head to be a Christmas gift to the people of Cincinnati, and we are pleased to be able to continue our tradition year after year.
The Boar’s Head is one of the oldest continuing festivals 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 accouterments. Mince pie and plum pudding good King Wenceslas and his pages, a yule log lit from 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, that 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 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.
The pageant begins as a gong sounds the hour. The prelude, arranged from an English folk song, is based on “The Cherry Tree Carol” in which Jesus, from within the womb, changes a cherry tree to bend down its branches to Mary. Apocryphal stories like this were popular among traveling mendicant friars in the Middle Ages.
Procession of the Beefeaters
The heavy tread of the Beefeaters – traditional guardians of the king – sound as they enter to begin their watch. “As Dew In Aprill” (Anonymous, 13th Century) is probably the oldest carol in the Boar’s Head Ceremony.
The Yule Sprite Comes
Into the darkened church comes a sprite bearing the tiny light of a burning taper. From it, the Dean lights the great Festival candle and holds it high so that all may feel its blessed light on their shoulders. This symbolizes the coming of Christ into an enlightened world. The light is given to the Church not only to preserve, but to extend it throughout the Earth.
The Boar’s Head Procession
A trumpet sounds. Led by a minstrel, a noble company of knights and attendants brings the boar’s head with its many accoutrements. At length the conquered enemy is presented near the altar. A long line of companies follows the slain boar. The Boar’s Head Carol is a variant of a carol from Wynken de Worde’s “New Christmasse Carolles” of 1521, which is sung at Queen’s College, Oxford. Our version includes three verses written by parishioner Eric Van Hagen in 1961.
The Yule Log
A prayer for God’s keeping accompanies the gayest and brightest of medieval holiday customs, the yule log. The huge log was gathered with ceremony, and brought with hope to the home hearth where it was kindled from embers from the old year’s fire. Its blazing warmth spoke of rekindled love and promise for the year to come.
“Sons of Eve” (Spanish, 16th century) is exuberant in spirit, reveling in God’s special gifts to youth, the waits come sharing gladness. In the Middle Ages it was customary for the lord and lady of the manor to provide lavish Christmas feasts for their serfs and vassals. Frequently they came into the castle to sing carols and toast their lord saying, “Wassail!” which means “Good health to you!” The coming of the waits divides the service into two distinct parts. First we have celebrated our good health, our material wealth, and the love of family. At length we grow introspective to recreate the long-ago miracle in Bethlehem.
“I Bring You Tidings of Great Joy” (folksong “Lord Rendal”, Somerset) is a greeting! God reaches down to a waiting and hoping world. An angel’s voice from a darkened Judean sky, solemn and glorious, brings forth the first words of Godspell. There is a change of mood in the music as the liturgy proceeds to tell of our deep longing and searching for God.
Shepherds come to find the Christ Child.O sancta simplicitas! O holy simplicity! Ancient shepherds, men of God’s sweet Earth, come in haste to find Mary and Joseph, with the Babe lying in the manger.
“Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” (Melchior Teschner c. 1613) is a paraphrase of Psalm 72.
Three great kings from the East, powerful men of politics and worldly affairs, follow their destinies to the Christ that has been foretold. Their splendor is dimmed by the Child’s radiance. They humble themselves in awe and kneel reverently. “Kings to Thy Rising” is based on the French carol “Tryste Noel.” The arrangement by Frank Levy suggests the swaying of marching camels. “We Three Kings” is the only wholly American element in the Boar’s Head.
The World Joins the Kings and the Shepherds
From everywhere, people are drawn to the Christ Child. They bring a diversity of gifts yet the same spirit. In the festival’s climax, God comes down to his people. They reach up to God.
God’s ultimate gift, his only begotten Son, has come to earth. From this reverent moment, the companies melt away, leaving only His essence, a burning light, the symbol that He has come.
Orchestral Postlude and The Yule Sprite Returns
As at the beginning, a tiny sprite enters the church. The sprite joins the Dean at the altar, and together they carry the light out into the world. Christ is the Light of the World.
Hundreds of individuals have given their time, their talent – even their heirlooms – to the Christ Church Cathedral Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival over these many years. The spirit of their contributions gives this event a richness and meaning that lives in each performance. While we are unable to list them all here, but in our thoughts and in our prayers we give them our deepest thanks.
Boar’s Head Directors
The Rev. Nelson Burroughs: 1940-1948
The Rev. Sidney Case McCammon: 1949
The Rev. Harold Chase: 1950
The Rev. William B. Key: 1951-1952
The Rev. Morris Arnold: 1953-1971
Mr. Lloyd Pritchard*: 1953-1957
Mr. Herbert Shaffer*: 1958-1962
Mr. Miner Raymond*: 1968-1973
Mr. Michael Hatfield*: 1968-1973
Ms. Lenore Hatfield *: 1968-1973
Mr. Michael Detroy: 1974-1975
Mr. George Snider: 1976
Ms. June Coldiron: 1977-1978
Mr. Robert Beiring & Anne Jaroszewicz: 2015 – 2022
Anne Jaroszewicz*: 2022 – Present
Boar’s Head Music Directors
Parvin Titus: 1940-1962
Gerre Hancock: 1962-1971
Searle Wright: 1972-1975
Henry Lowe: 1975-1984
Ernest Hoffman: 1984-2005
Charles Hogan: 2006-2008
Stephan Casurella: 2009-present
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