We Americans have a way of taking European customs and cultural items, reinventing them to our liking, and as often as not sending them back (or at least trying to) to the Mother Continent. So it has been with Disney’s Fantasyland (based on European folktales), historical re-enactment, Renaissance “faires”, the Society for Creative Anachronism, and much else. But nowhere is this truer than with holiday celebrations. St Patrick’s Day, Halloween, Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, and the Kirking of the Tartans come to mind – although Burns suppers and Lessons and Carols services retain more or less the style of their British counterparts.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the American version of an almost extinct English Christmas custom. Despite the cosmopolitan origins of so much of our distinctly American manner of celebrating Our Lord’s birth, in the popular mind – thanks in no small part to Washington Irving and Charles Dickens – England is seen as the Christmas country par excellence. And among its customs that we try to emulate – in addition to the aforementioned carols services and the yule log – is the Boar’s Head Festival.
In medieval England, a highly decorated boar’s head was a centrepiece of Yuletide feasting in abbeys and great halls alike. (It was at one such dinner that the eponymous creature of mystery made his appearance at Camelot in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.) Since 1343, the Worshipful Company of Butchers has every December marched through the streets of the City of London (the square mile at the center of Greater London) to present one such porcine gift to the Lord Mayor for Christmas. The carrying in of a boar’s head for Christmas dinner, accompanied by the Boar’s Head Carol, is still an annual event at Queen’s College, Oxford, the ceremony being performed the Saturday before Christmas.
But the Reformation, the Puritan Interregnum and the “Enlightenment” of the 18th century effectively purged this “Gothick” ceremony from most of England – save the two mentioned refuges and perhaps two or three others. For most, only the carol survived.
Yet as with Christmas itself, Anglo-Catholicism and a great many other good things, Romanticism opened up the early 19th century to a rebirth of the Boar’s Head, apparently starting in 1849 when a Queen’s College alumnus became founding headmaster of Hurstpierpoint College in West Sussex. It spread to select schools, clubs and parishes throughout England, as well as in Canada, Ireland and South Africa. These were relatively simple affairs, based rather strictly upon the procession with carols into a dining facility, as at Oxford. But these staid rites would burst into an extravaganza in the United States.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries in the US saw an explosion of Anglophilia among the “better classes”. Neo-Gothic came into vogues in churches and schools, spearheaded by the redoubtable Ralph Adams Cram. The Ivy League remodelled itself on Oxbridge, and the leading boarding schools after Eton, Harrow and the like. The Episcopal Church – with its National Cathedral and “Church of the Presidents” in Washington – acted as a quasi-official state church.
In this atmosphere, Dr Edward Dudley Tibbits, an Episcopal priest, brought the Boar’s Head tradition in 1892 to the Hoosac School in upstate New York, which he had founded three years previously. But the good doctor did not settle for a mere re-enactment of the English custom. It became a theatrical event, with the yule log brought in as well, accompanied by boys dressed as beefeaters. The presentation has become quite elaborate, with Elizabethan gentry, shepherds, the Three Kings, Good King Wenceslas, mummers, waits, medieval monks, and much else. It is quite an extraordinary experience.
In 1940, permission was given by Hoosac School to use their scripts and so on to the Episcopal Cathedral in Cincinnati. Twenty years later, when that city’s Episcopal bishop was translated to Cleveland, he brought the tradition with him. In time, it spread to a number of wealthier Episcopal churches around the country.
Breaking denominational bonds, it can now be found at Lutheran, Methodist, Congregational and Presbyterian churches as well – and even at secular schools and at least one hotel. In recent years, it has finally come to a few Catholic churches too – most fittingly, last year, to the Ordinariate’s Our Lady of Walsingham Cathedral in Houston, Texas.
I write “most fittingly,” because, as it has evolved, the Boar’s Head festival is really a celebration of the medieval – that is, Catholic – English Christmas. Moreover, it is usually offered during the Twelve Days after Christmas, and so helps emphasise that magical liturgical period between Christmas and Epiphany. It can also be a means of evangelising both audience and professional performers (if any are used) – to say nothing of its built-in utility as a fundraiser, especially when accompanied by dinner.
But be forewarned: if it continues to rise in popularity in America, the Boar’s Head festival may well come home to Britain and the Commonwealth.
Charles A Coulombe is an author and lecturer based in Los Angeles