Boar's Head Carol

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The "Boar's Head Carol" is a macaronic 15th century[1][2] English Christmas carol that describes the ancient tradition of sacrificing a boar and presenting its head at a Yuletide feast. Of the several extant versions of the carol, the one most usually performed today is based on a version published in 1521 in Wynkyn de Worde's Christmasse Carolles.[1]

History and origins[edit]

According to folklorists, the boar's head tradition was:

initiated in all probability on the Isle of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, although our knowledge of it comes substantially from medieval times. ... [In ancient Norse tradition] sacrifice carried the intent of imploring Freyr to show favor to the new year. The boar's head with apple in mouth was carried into the banquet hall on a gold or silver dish to the sounds of trumpets and the songs of minstrels.[2]

In Scandinavia and England, Saint Stephen may have inherited some of Freyr's legacy. St. Stephen's feast day is 26 December, and thus he came to play a part in the Yuletide celebrations which were previously associated with Freyr (or Ingwi to the Anglo-Saxons). In old Swedish art, Stephen is shown as tending to horses and bringing a boar's head to a Yuletide banquet.[3] Both elements are extra-canonical and may be pagan survivals. Christmas ham is an old tradition in Sweden and may have originated as a winter solstice boar sacrifice to Freyr.[citation needed]


The boar's head in hand bring I, (Or: The boar's head in hand bear I,)
Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you, my masters, be merry (Or: And I pray you, my masters, merry be)
Quot estis in convivio (Translation: As many as are in the feast)

Caput apri defero (Translation: The boar's head I bear)
Reddens laudes Domino (Translation: Giving praises to the Lord)

The boar's head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck'd with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico. (Translation: Let us serve with a song)


Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of Bliss;
Which on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio. (Translation: In the hall of Queen’s [College, Oxford])


There is also an alternative version of the same song with lyrics modified to fit poultry being served, replacing "The boar's head in hand bring I" with "The fowl on the platter see", and "The boar's head, as I understand/Is the rarest dish in all this land" with "This large bird, as I understand/Is the finest dish in all this land".

Modern processions[edit]

As of 2008, the tradition of processing with the Boar's Head whilst singing the carol was believed still to be observed at the following locations:

In Canada[edit]

  • Knox College, University of Toronto, Canada. The procession takes place in the dark and is the only occasion when candles are permitted to be lit in the historic building. A bearer of the boar's head and the singers are selected by the music director of the Christmas formal dinner.
  • Victoria University in the University of Toronto, Canada.[citation needed]
  • Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada. December 2008 was the 59th annual observance.[citation needed]
  • Jane Ubertino's annual Wassail party in Toronto (the 26th one in 2016 was held at Regis College, the 27th one in 2017 in Corpus Christi parish hall)
  • Bushwakker Brewpub, Regina, Saskatchewan. Annual Christmas presentation from the Regina Male Voice Choir in mid-December.

In England[edit]

  • Hurstpierpoint College, West Sussex, England. Here, it has been observed annually almost since the College's foundation in 1849 and may have been imported by a Headmaster who was at Queen's College. It now takes place on the first Wednesday in December after a short service in Chapel for all, and heralds the feast which is held to acknowledge the work done by the College's Sacristans and Choir. The Boar's Head is carried on a platter carried by four Sacristans and preceded by the mustard pot carried by a fifth. The remainder of the Senior School lines the cloisters which form three sides of the Inner Quadrangle, the fourth being formed by the Chapel and Dining Hall. The lights are extinguished and the procession, its members carrying candles, moves from the east of the college through the cloisters lined by unusually silent students and back through the Chapel to the vestry.
  • Netherthorpe School, Chesterfield, England.
  • Notting Hill & Ealing High School, England. Here, the Boar's Head itself is actually a fake made from papier mache. The GPDST council of 1911 declared this inappropriate, however the tradition is still enforced.
  • Orchard House Christmas Dinner at Millfield School, Somerset, England.
  • Stourbridge Old Edwardian Club, England. The Boar's Head supper was traditionally celebrated on Christmas Eve since 1911 but is now celebrated on 23 December. The decorated Boar's Head, carried on a platter by the Club's President, is ceremonially presented to the members. After the welcome and seasonal greetings, a supper is served, which includes brawn-filled bread rolls.
  • The Queen's College, Oxford, England. William Henry Husk, Librarian to the Sacred Harmonic Society, wrote about the tradition in his Songs of the Nativity Being Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1868):

    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 neighbouring 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, "Græcum est,"[4] and fairly choked the savage with the sage.[1]

Queen's College celebrates the tradition by three chefs' bringing a boar's head into hall, with a procession of a solo singer who sings the first verse, accompanied by torch bearers and followed by a choir. The procession stops during verses and walks during the chorus. The head is placed on the high table, and the Provost distributes the herbs to the choir and the orange from the Boar's mouth to the solo singer.[5]

  • Worshipful Company of Cutlers, London, England
  • Church of St Leonard & St James, Rousham, Oxfordshire, England where the choir processes behind a boar's head at the start of the annual service of Nine Lessons and Carols (the Sunday before Christmas). Here, as at Queen's College in nearby Oxford, the procession stops during verses and walks during the chorus. The head is placed in the pulpit for the duration of the service, and then taken to St James's church in Somerton, for similar use under the supervision of local MP Victoria Prentis.

In Ireland[edit]

  • Gonzaga College Dublin, the senior choir has traditionally sung the Boar's Head Carol after the solemn Christmas Eve Midnight Mass held at the College Chapel. On Christmas Eve 2008, the Schola (inner choir) initiated an impromptu rendition on the steps of the College to maintain the tradition after the Carol had strangely been dropped from the service.[citation needed]

In South Africa[edit]

In the United States[edit]

In the United States, the "Boar's Head Carol" and procession are often a part of madrigal dinner performances, even though the main dish is usually chicken.[citation needed] •Asylum HIll Congregational Church, West Hartford CT, performed annually since 1967


  • The Druids (1971). Burnt Offering. Argo. 
  • Nowell Sing We Clear (1977). Nowell Sing We Clear. Golden Hind Music. 
  • King's Singers (1990). A Little Christmas Music. EMI Angel. 
  • Maddy Prior & The Carnival Band (1991). Carols & Capers. Park Records. 
  • The Chieftains (1991). The Bells of Dublin. RCA. 
  • The Sixteen (1993). Christmas Music from Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Hyperion. 
  • Robert Shaw Festival Singers (1994). Songs of Angels: Christmas Hymns and Carols. Telarc. 
  • The Young Tradition with Shirley Collins & Dolly Collins (1995). The Holly Bears the Crown. Fledg'ling Records. 
  • Ceilidh Friends (1997). The Spirit of Giving. CF2. 
  • Veggietales (1998). A Very Veggie Christmas. Big Idea. 
  • Steeleye Span (1999). A Rare Collection 1972-1996. Raven. 
  • Maddy Prior (2000). Ballads and Candles. Park Records. 
  • Heather Alexander & Alexander James Adams (2007). WinterTide. Sea Fire Productions. 
  • Dan Lyth (2009). Fat Man and Baby Boy. 
  • Josh Garrels (2016). The Light Came Down. 


  1. ^ a b c Husk, William Henry. Songs of the Nativity Being Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern. London: John Camden Hotten, 1868 reprinted by Norwood Editions, Norwood, PA, 1973. Digitally reproduced and annotated by A Treasury of Christmas Carols: The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
  2. ^ a b Spears, James E. Folklore, Vol. 85, No. 3. (Autumn, 1974), pp. 194-198. JSTOR
  3. ^ Berger, Pamela (1985). The Goddess Obscured: Transformation of the Grain Protectress from Goddess to Saint. Boston: Beacon Press. pp. 105–112. ISBN 0-8070-6723-7. 
  4. ^ "With compliments of the Greeks."
  5. ^ "Boar's Head Carol". Retrieved December 8, 2009. 

External links[edit]

See also[edit]