Published: 21-02-2010, 18:26

Boar’s Head

Wild boars are large, fierce, pig-like animals with curled tusks. In the Middle Ages the heads of these fearsome male animals, relatives of the domestic pig, composed the central dish of the Christmas banquet in some parts of EUROPE. Queen’s College at England’s Oxford University still maintains this traditional feast. The custom has long since died out in most places, however. Some believe that the boar began its association with Christmas in pagan Scandinavia. In Scandinavia today pork dishes continue as Christmas favorites, and Christmas cookies often take the shape of a pig. In Sweden the head of a pig, garnished with pastry, flags, and an apple between its jaws, may still be placed at the center of the Christmas buffet table.

Some researchers locate the origins of the Christmas boar’s head feast as far back as pagan times. They note that both the pagan Scandinavians and Celts not only relished the boar’s meat, but also gave the animal a respected place in their mythology. Among the Germanic peoples the boar was associated with the dead. The Scandinavians and Celts cast fearsome images of the boar onto their war helmets. The Scandinavians imagined that the souls of fallen warriors lived on in a heaven where they feasted on wild boar every day. The meat was provided by a magical animal that was slaughtered, eaten, and appeared anew and alive daily. Among the ancient Scandinavians, the boar also served as the companion animal to the god Frey. Frey represented many things, among them sunlight, peace, prosperity, and fertility. The pagan Scandinavians sometimes described the course of the sun across the sky as Frey riding the heavens on his shining, golden boar.
An ancient Scandinavian saga, or poem, describes the sacrifice of a wild boar as an important component of the ancient YULE festival. The worshipers dedicated this sacrifice to Frey. So holy was the sacrificial boar that warriors swore oaths over its body. Since Frey was the patron of fertility, some interpret this as a rite designed to increase crop yields and herds in the coming spring.
While some writers believe that a seasonal taste for the pork can be traced back to these pagan practices, others point out that November and December served as the traditional months for the slaughter of pigs in pre-industrial times. At this point in the year pigs were consuming the last of the forest’s free pig feed: acorns and beechnuts. Small farmers either had to find more feed, let the pigs go hungry, or slaughter them. According to these authors, this seasonal cycle may provide the true explanation for the boar’s place at the Christmas feast.

In medieval ENGLAND, the boar’s head graced the tables of the prosperous at Christmas time as well as on other feast days. Preparing and serving this robust dish required the combined efforts of many people. The beleaguered cook might spend more than a week skinning, soaking, salting, preserving, and finally cooking this awkward piece of meat. In the final stages the cook garnished the boar’s head with ROSEMARY and inserted an apple, orange, or lemon in its mouth. In rich and noble houses much ceremony surrounded the presentation of this dish. The steward brought the boar’s head into the hall on a special platter, accompanied by minstrels. Other servants, and sometimes even the huntsmen who killed the beast, participated in the procession into the hall, adding to the spectacle. Wild boar were known as formidable prey, which may have bestowed additional glamour on this dish. Sometime in the twelfth century, however, the wild boar became extinct in England. Its demise left the domesticated pig to take over this Christmas duty. While the traditional boar’s head feast entertained the wealthy at Christmas time, ordinary folks often made do with beef, goose, or Christmas pies.
In the mid-seventeenth century a new religious sect called the PURITANS rose to power in England. The Puritans disapproved of many aspects of traditional English Christmas celebrations, including the lusty feasting and drinking. During their reign they succeeded in curtailing and, in some cases, even outlawing many of these practices. After the Puritan campaign against Christmas subsided, the boar’s head never again regained its widespread popularity among the wealthy as the main dish for the Christmas feast.

Queen’s College
In spite of the disappearance of the boar’s head among the general population, this traditional feast was maintained at Oxford University’s Queen’s College. Each year at Christmas time the boar’s head dinner takes place in the college’s dining hall. This tradition began in the fourteenth century, shortly after the founding of the college. The process begins in the kitchen, where the chef garnishes the boar’s head with bay (see LAUREL) and rosemary, tucks an orange into its mouth, and places it on a silver platter. Four men carry this dish into the dining hall, preceded by a solo singer and followed by the col-lege choir. The soloist and choir sing the “Boar’s Head Carol” as they process into the hall, pausing for the soloist to sing each verse. Finally the boar’s head is set upon the high table. The provost then removes the orange and offers it to the lead singer, and distributes the rosemary and bay among the choir and guests.
The tune and words to the “Boar’s Head Carol” have changed over time. A version popular in the early seventeenth century describes the killing of the boar as a beneficial act that not only prevents him from ruining crops, but also provides tasty meat for the assembled company. The more recent version of the carol, with its Latin refrain, focuses on the feast at hand and gives thanks to God:

Solo: The boar’s head in hand bear I
Bedecked with bays and rosemary
I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio (So many as are in the feast)

Chorus: Caput apri defero, Reddens laudes domino
(The boar’s head I bring, giving praises to God)

Solo: The boar’s head as I understand, Is the rarest dish in all this land, Which thus bedecked with a gay garland Let us servire cantico (serve with a song)

Chorus: Caput apri defero, Reddens laudes domino

Solo: Our steward hath provided this In honor of the King of bliss Which, on this day to be served is In reginensi atrio (the Queen’s hall)

Chorus: Caput apri defero, Reddens laudes domino [Duncan, 1992,186-87]

The denizens of Queen’s College invented an amusing story by way of offering an explanation for their traditional Christmas dinner. On a winter’s day hundreds of years ago a student named Copcot went walking in the nearby Shotover woods. He carried with him a volume of Aristotle, which he had been striving in vain to comprehend. Suddenly a boar sprang out of the underbrush and charged toward him. Copcot thrust the book down the boar’s throat, crying out in Latin, “Graecum est!” (approximately, “it’s Greek to me!”). The boar choked to death on this undigestible work. Since Copcot could ill afford to lose a book, he chopped off the boar’s head, retrieved his Aristotle, and carried both back to the college. The college feasted on Copcot’s trophy, and a tradition was born.