An Ancient Ceremony


The boar’s head in hand bear I

Bedecked with bay and rosemary;

So I pray you my masters be merry,

Quot estis in convivio [as many as are at the feast].

CHORUS (after each verse):

Caput apri defero [I bring in the boar’s head]

Reddens laudes Domino [Giving thanks to the lord]

The boar’s head as I understand

Is the rarest dish in all the land,

Which thus bedecked with a bright garland,

Let us servire cantico [serve it with a song].

Our steward hath provided this

In honor of the King of bliss,

Which on this day to be served is

In Reginensis atrio [In Queen’s Hall].

“The ancient ceremony of The Boar’s Head Carol was performed for many years on Christmas Eve at The Queens College, Oxford, but now it is sung on a Saturday shortly before Christmas, when old members are entertained at a fête or ‘gaudy.’ The College Choir processes into the Hall during the refrains, stopping each time a verse is sung. When the boar’s head is set down on the high table, the Provost distributes the herbs among the choir and presents the solo singer with the orange from the boar’s mouth.”

Then Mom ceremoniously brought in their own “Boar’s Head” on a festive platter—the largest in the house. It wasn’t the main course, which was lamb stew. But what a dessert the boar’s “head” made! It was actually half a large pineapple without leaves, cut down the middle with the core removed, and set on a plate with the rind side up. Brie and Mom had cubed the other half of the pineapple and stuck pieces on protruding toothpicks atop the rind—a beautiful presentation, with each piece of pineapple topped by a cube of cheese and a black olive. The boar’s “bristles” were impressive indeed! At one end the golden fruit was dressed with two cherries for eyes and an apple slice mouth. A piece of curly wire made the tail. After they had eaten all the bristles, there was more fruit underneath.

“Very clever … and appropriate,” Dad approved. And Brian silently reached for the last of the pineapple treat. Brie gave the afterthought: “The Boar’s Head is probably the oldest continuing festival of the Christmas season. This pageant comes from the 1300s when the boar was sovereign of the forest. A ferocious beast who was a menace to humans, it was hunted as a public enemy. Like our Thanksgiving turkey, roasted boar was a staple of medieval banquets. As Christian beliefs overtook pagan customs in parts of Europe, the presentation of a boar’s head at Christmas came to symbolize the triumph of the Christ Child over sin.”

Though the cold grows stronger,

Yet the days grow longer,

Death can hurt no more:

Tell that sin is o’er.

—January Carol.

Excerpt from Twelfth Day by Isabel Anders.



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