Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Boar's Head Carol


The boar's head in hand bear I,
Bedecked with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quod estis in convivio.*

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino.

The boar's head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all the land,
Which thus bedecked with a gay garland
Let us sevire cantico.***

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino.

Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of Bliss;
Which on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio.****

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino.

*All who are at the feast.
**The boar's head I offer/Giving praises to the Lord.
***Serve with a song.
****In the Queen's hall.

The Boar's Head Carol was first printed in 1521, and the celebration of the Boar's Head Feast still continues at Queen's College in Oxford (the "Queen's hall"), but the song is probably older and the tradition was definitely more widespread in Great Britain in earlier times. Some folklorists connect it (and the custom of Christmas hams) to sacrifices of wild boars to the Norse god Freyr; what is certain is that as fall ended and winter began there was always a great slaughter of pigs in preparation for the lean months ahead.

William Henry Husk, in 1868, wrote of the Boar's Head Feast: "Where an amusing tradition formerly current in Oxford concerning the boar's head custom, which represented that usage as a commemoration of an act of valour performed by a student of the college, who, while walking in the neighboring forest of Shotover and reading Aristotle, was suddenly attacked by a wild boar. The furious beast came open-mouthed upon the youth, who, however, very courageously, and with a happy presence of mind, thrust the volume he was reading down the boar's throat, crying, 'Graecum est [Compliments of the Greeks!],' and fairly choked the savage with the sage."

The boar's head was served on a gold or silver dish, garnished with bay, rosemary, and other herbs, its mouth stuffed with an apple or orange. It was carried by the cooks into the hall with great ceremony, heralded by trumpets, accompanied by torchbearers, and celebrated with a choir singing the Carol. Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud write in A Dictionary of English Folklore that "Bringing in the boar's head, on a huge plate, was a potent symbol of old Christmas on a grand scale, popular with Victorian illustrators to evoke a Merrie England tradition."

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