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This year I had the opportunity to see the Boar’s Head Festival for the second year in a row. For those unfamiliar with what the Boars Head Festival is all about, here is a little background:
- The Boar’s Head is probably the oldest continuing festival of the Christmas season. On its 600th anniversary in 1940, it was first celebrated at Christ Church, Cincinnati and 2012 marked it’s 73rd year!
- This pageant is rooted in ancient times when the boar was sovereign of the forest. A ferocious beast and menace to humans it was hunted as a public enemy. At Roman feasts, boar was the first dish served. Like our Thanksgiving turkey, roasted boar was a staple of medieval banquets. As Christian beliefs overtook pagan customs in Europe, the presentation of a boar’s head at Christmas came to symbolize the triumph of the Christ Child over sin.
- The Festival we know today originated at Queen’s College, Oxford, England in 1340. Legend has it that a scholar was studying a book of Aristotle while walking through the forest on his way to Christmas Mass. Suddenly, he was confronted by an angry wild boar. Having no other weapon, the resourceful Oxonian rammed his metal-bound philosophy book down the throat of the charging animal, whereupon the brute choked to death. That night the boar’s head, finely dressed and garnished, was borne in procession to the dining room, accompanied by carolers singing “in honor of the King of bliss.”
I love the time period that this is set in! For me it is simply magical, to sit in the cathedral with an orchestra of 70 and over 170 performers all dressed in period clothing from head to toe, singing these 16th and 17th century songs. And to think that they only have 1 dress rehearsal 3 hours before the start of the first show is something quite remarkable!
The story starts off with the sound of gongs outside in the hall of the cathedral. Then you hear the footsteps, the in unison marching and the loud thud of the Beefeaters boots (the guardians of the kings) as they march in. The whole show is presented through music and song and lasts about an hour. Then into the darkened church comes a sprite bearing the tiny light of a burning taper. From it, the Dean lights the great Festival candle and holds it high so that all may feel its blessed light on their shoulders. This symbolizes the coming of Christ into an enlightened world.
The boar’s head is then lead in, carried high for all to see with all the trimmings; evergreens, flags, plum pudding, and a mince pie. It is followed by a long line of companies, 26 companies. From the Lord and Lady of the Manor, Yule Page, Holly Bearers, Woodsmen (he actually carried a live owl on his arm), Shepherds to Waits and Pages.
Halfway through the show, in celebration of the birth of Jesus, the lights come on and jesters dance up and down the isles not to mention the pews, they walk over the pews, in between the audience and sit in the laps to exclaim and rejoice in the birth. After the birth of Jesus, the Magi come bearing gifts and the songs include “Kings To Thy Rising” and “We Three Kings“.Then the last song, sung by the whole church is “O Come All Ye Faithful” to celebrate God’s Ultimate Gift that has come to Earth.
If you have never been to a performance, I would highly recommend that you attend one! You do need to get tickets about 3 weeks before the first performance, but the best part is that the tickets are free! The show is held at Christ Church Cathedral on East Fourth Street. This year, it was just my husband and myself, we left the kids at home and made a night of it! I will say that I did not see very many children, let alone little ones, in attendance for the performance we attended, the 5:00 Sunday show.
To be taken away from the hustle and bustle of the busy holiday season albeit if only for an hour, at The Boar’s Head Festival, to enjoy the time-honored tradition of the boar and birth of Jesus is truly one of Cincinnati’s hidden gems.