The long-simmering kettle of universal spirit reduces varied traditions down to their elements. This produces a stock for the making of future soups. I just sang in the choir (and was a shepherd) in an Epiphany pageant marking the end of the twelve days of Christmas, the triumph of wisdom over ignorant forces, and the passing of the life force from the old year into the new.
It’s called the Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival. Like Christmas, it has come to us from many different times and places. The origins are pagan, Roman, Viking, Christian and Medieval, all at once. Here’s what happens in our version:
A Yule Sprite brings a lighted candle into the darkened church. A Minister receives the light, and from this flame the lights of the church rise. The Chief Minstrel enters, circling the aisles and singing The Boar’s Head Carol. It’s a macaronic carol, one with English and Latin words.
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. (Let us serve with a song)
Caput apri defero (The boar’s head I offer)
Reddens laudes Domino (Giving praises to the Lord)
As the carol is sung, the Royal Court enters. Next comes the Boar’s Head, mince pies and plum puddings carried on litters. King Wenceslas, his Page and a Poor Man follow. Then come Minstrels and Waits (jesters). The nomads of the Nativity, the Shepherds and Magi follow, and a company of Beefeaters with lances brings up the rear. After the Court is gathered and seated by the altar, they and the congregation are presented with carols performed by the costumed characters. Those in the audience may sing the choruses, as most of the songs are familiar to all. After the last song the Court and characters recess to music, a Yule Sprite returns, and together the Minister and Sprite carry forth the lighted candle into the world.
The originator of the tale had a good reason for thanking God. He was a hapless scholar from Oxford, walking through the forest of Shotover. A wild boar attacked him. Having no weapon save a big book of Aristotle, he shoved the metal-spined volume into the charging beast’s mouth with a cry of “Graecum est!” (Courtesy of the Greeks!), or so he said.
This sounds like big talk from a lucky nerd to me, however the boar choked to death and he returned with the head – a delicacy usually reserved for nobility. Thus, the tradition of the resulting annual feast was noted in the 14th century.
Over the centuries more characters and carols were added, and the student’s tale was merged with other celebrations of winter survival, such as the birth of Jesus. Now it is a tradition preserved in churches, including the symbolic pre-Christian aspects. No animals were harmed in the making of this production. It’s more about singing, and dressing up all medieval and pageanty.
We sang “Deck the Halls”, as mistletoe-decked Sprites carted a Yule Log about, ringing bells. These symbols are from the winter solstice (Druidic and Norse) fire festivals of 6th Century Britain. Yule logs were midwinter trees selected for maximum warmth, lighted with ceremony from old embers.
Though I am aware the carol “Good King Wenceslas” is inconsistent with the historical person (who was a warrior and never more than a duke), it is still one of my favorites. My better nature includes a good portion of Victorian whimsy, and I love this story of a generous monarch whose warm heart (and feet) allow his page to follow him through a blizzard, bringing firewood and food to a poor man.
Dancing children passed out candy to the congregants as we sang “Here We Come a-Wassailing”. Waes Hail! (Good Health!) This health we wish not upon ourselves, but for the trees. Bit of a selfish wish; more apples = more cider, but it still gave me a chance to renew hope in my heart for respecting and restoring my own local forest.
This was a significant debut for Mary, who sang soprano in a quartet. She’s never sung a part solo in public before, but she was gifted at birth with a fine voice so I was gratified to have encouraged her to sing more.
We had the second big snowfall of the season. Thanks to studded tires, I was as lucky as that scholar in the woods to have made it to the performances. I do like living in a place where there’s more of a real winter, though. I’m beginning to adopt some of my wife’s enjoyment of bad weather. Joy’s a good thing, wherever you find it.