Boar's Head Carol

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Serving up the Boar's Head at The Queen's College, Oxford, on Christmas Day

The "Boar's Head Carol" is a macaronic 15th century[1][2] English Christmas carol that describes serving a boar's 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] A modern choral arrangement by Elizabeth Poston (1960) is also widely performed.[3]

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. Saint 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.[4] Both elements are extra-canonical and may be pagan survivals.

Jacob Grimm noted that the serving of a boar's head at banquets may also be a reminiscence of the sonargöltr, the boar sacrificed as part of the celebration of Yule in Germanic paganism.[5]


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 at the feast)

Caput apri defero (Translation: The boar's head I bear)
Reddens laudes Domino (Translation: Rendering 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 servèd is
In Reginensi atrio. (Translation: In the hall of The Queen’s (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]


  • The Queen's College, Oxford: annual Boar’s Head Gaudy with Boar’s Head dinner.[6] William Henry Husk, librarian to the Sacred Harmonic Society, wrote about the Oxford 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,"[7] and fairly choked the savage with the sage.[1]

  • Notting Hill and Ealing High School: a longstanding tradition. The head is actually papier-mâché.[8]

United States[edit]


  • Nowell Sing We Clear (1977). Nowell Sing We Clear. Golden Hind Music.
  • David Willcocks; Royal College of Music Chamber Choir; Royal College of Music Brass Ensemble (1984). Carols for Christmas Volume I. CBS.
  • The 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; Shirley Collins; Dolly Collins (1995). The Holly Bears the Crown. Fledg'ling Records.
  • VeggieTales (1996). 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.
  • Josh Garrels (2016). The Light Came Down.
  • Kevin Max (2022). Winter Woods.

See also[edit]


  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. ^ Elizabeth Poston: Carols and Anthems, Naxos CD 8.574576. MusicWeb International review
  4. ^ 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. Goddess Obscured: Transformation of the Grain Protectress.
  5. ^ Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, tr. James Steven Stallybrass, Volume 4, 1883, p. 1355.
  6. ^ "Boar's Head Gaudy". The Queens' College, Oxford. Retrieved 21 November 2022.
  7. ^ "It's in Greek."
  8. ^ "The Boar's Head Carol - A Unique NHEHS Christmas Tradition". Notting Hill and Ealing High School. 10 December 2019. Retrieved 10 December 2022.
  9. ^ "Boar's Head and Yule Log Festival". Asylum Hill Congregational Church. Retrieved Dec 10, 2020.
  10. ^ The Boar's Head and Yule Log Festival
  11. ^ "University of Rochester Symbols and Traditions". University of Rochester. Retrieved Dec 10, 2020.
  12. ^ "Christ Presbyterian Celebrating Its 40th Boar's Head Festival". Nov 11, 2019.

External links[edit]