Boar's Head Carol

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]

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

History and originsEdit

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.[3] 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.[4]


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 Regimensi atrio. (Translation: In the hall of The 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 processionsEdit

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 CanadaEdit

  • Knox College, Toronto, Ontario. 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, Ontario.[citation needed]
  • Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario.[citation needed]
  • Jane Ubertino's annual Wassail party in Toronto, Ontario (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 EnglandEdit

  • Ashville College, Harrogate, North Yorkshire. Here, it has been observed annually since the 1920s by the school's boarding community who are aged between 16 and 18 on the Friday evening before the Michaelmas term ends (i.e. when the school finishes for Christmas). In 2011, the then headmaster, Mark Lauder, opened the event up to the school's Sixth Form (those in Year 12 and Year 13 (ages 16–18)) as well as the boarders, essentially serving as the Sixth Form's Christmas Party. The pupil head of each of the four boarding houses: Greenholme (junior boys/girls), Norfolk (senior girls), Briggs (senior boys) and Mallinson (senior boys) carries one corner of the platter containing the head of the boar, decorated with tissue paper and edible flowers, parading it around the dining hall. This happens as the senior prefects of the school, the 'Red Ties', as well as the Sixth Form pupils who are members of the 'Ashville Singers', the school's senior choir, conducted by the school's chaplain (the chaplain as of 2019 is David Barker), sing the 'Boars Head Carol' a cappella. Generally the Head Chorister sings the main verses whilst everyone else in the choir only sings the Latin chorus. As of 2019, the same boar's head has been used since 2005, constantly kept frozen in the freezer of the school's kitchen when not in use.
  • Hurstpierpoint College, Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex. 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, Staveley, Derbyshire
  • Ribston Hall High School, Gloucestershire
  • Notting Hill and Ealing High School, Ealing, London. Here, the Boar's Head itself is actually a fake made from papier-mâché. The Girls' Day School Trust council of 1911 declared this inappropriate, however the tradition is still enforced.
  • Orchard House Christmas Dinner at Millfield School, Street, Somerset.
  • Old Edwardian Club, Stourbridge, West Midlands. 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, Oxfordshire. 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,"[5] and fairly choked the savage with the sage.[1]

The Queen's College celebrates the tradition by three chefs' bringing a boar's head into the 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.[6]

  • Worshipful Company of Cutlers, City of London, London
  • 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 IrelandEdit

  • 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 been dropped from the service.[citation needed]

In the United StatesEdit

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, Hartford, Connecticut, has performed the Boar's Head and Yule Log Festival annually since 1968[7]
  • Emma Willard School, Troy, New York hosts a yearly Revels pageant, a reenactment by the senior class of a Medieval Christmas complete with boar's head procession and Latin carols.
  • Bethlehem Lutheran Church of Saginaw, Michigan has held a Boar's Head Festival annually since 1984.[citation needed]
  • Camlann Medieval Village, Carnation, Washington, at all Christmas Yule Feasts from November to January
  • Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati, Ohio. The Boar's Head and Yule Log Festival has been celebrated every year since 1940.[8]
  • Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan hosts an annual Boar's Head Festival. 2008 marked the 31st year the festival has been performed.
  • Cranbrook Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. The song is sung each year during the presentation of the boar by the underclassman at the schools "Senior Pageant." The tradition has been kept since the founding of the school, and all male seniors and alumni are allowed to attend. The pageant was modeled after the English tradition.
  • Dana Hall School, Wellesley, Massachusetts. A papier-mâché boar's head is presented as the song is song during the traditional Revels play, put on by the junior class annually right before the winter vacation.
  • First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Corpus Christi, Texas has celebrated the festival since 1982. Their festival was patterned after the one at University Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which was 5 years old at the time. It has become the traditional close of the Christmas season in South Texas.
  • Henricus Historical Park in Chesterfield, Virginia revived the Boar's Head Feast in 2015. The Cittie[clarification needed], dating from 1611, celebrates midway through December with a 10-course feast and presentation of a roasted suckling pig.
  • Hoosac School, Hoosick, New York, the Boars Head & Yule Log Festival has been held at this upstate boarding school each year for more than 100 years.[citation needed]
  • Huntsville First United Methodist Church, located in downtown Huntsville, Alabama, the Boar's Head and Yule Log Festival has been celebrated every Christmas for over 50 years.[citation needed]
  • Immanuel Lutheran Church of St. Charles, Missouri has held a Boar's Head Festival every December since 1986.[citation needed]
  • Oglethorpe University, Brookhaven, Georgia. An annual winter tradition for the university.
  • Make We Joy, an annual solstice celebration originally held at Connecticut College, now held at Mitchell College, has had a boar's head processional as part of the performance since 1981.
  • Our Savior Lutheran Church, Louisville, Kentucky, has put on a Boar's Head Festival for several years now.
  • Plymouth Congregational Church, Fort Wayne, Indiana, hosts an annual Boar's Head Festival. 2009 marked the 35th year the festival has been performed.
  • Queens University of Charlotte, Charlotte, North Carolina, holds the Boar's Head Banquet every year as a part of university tradition. 2008 was the 76th annual Boar's Head.[citation needed]
  • Reed College, Portland, Oregon, where a procession similar to the above has been performed since introduction by Rex Arragon via Oxford in the 1920s, with the Carol being sung by the processants.[9]
  • Saint Andrew's Episcopal Church, Maryville, Tennessee, every year on the Twelfth Night of Christmas.
  • St. George's School in Newport, Rhode Island has held its annual Boar's Head procession since 1896 as part of its Christmas Festival.[citation needed]
  • St. John's Northwestern Military Academy, Delafield, Wisconsin. This annual tradition is a highlight for the cadets and staff.[citation needed]
  • St Mary's Episcopal Church, Kinston, North Carolina. Performed annually since 1989.[citation needed]
  • The College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York.[10]
  • Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio, since 1960.
  • University Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Fort Worth, Texas. Inaugurated in 1977, this Boar's Head and Yule Log Festival features a cast of 300 magnificently costumed characters, live animals, orchestra, pipe organ, bell choir and the congregation's renowned Chancel Choir.[11]
  • University of the Cumberlands, Williamsburg, Kentucky]. Performed annually since 1966.
  • Wyoming Catholic College, Lander Wyoming.
  • Christ Presbyterian Church Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, Inaugurated in 1979 [12]


  • 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.

See alsoEdit


  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. Goddess Obscured: Transformation of the Grain Protectress.
  4. ^ Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, tr. James Steven Stallybrass, Volume 4, 1883, p. 1355.
  5. ^ "With compliments of the Greeks."
  6. ^ "Boar's Head Carol". Archived from the original on December 28, 2009. Retrieved December 8, 2009.
  7. ^ "Boar's Head and Yule Log Festival". Asylum Hill Congregational Church. Retrieved Dec 10, 2020.
  8. ^ The Boar's Head and Yule Log Festival
  9. ^ "Reed Magazine: Apocrypha". Retrieved Dec 10, 2020.
  10. ^ "University of Rochester Symbols and Traditions". University of Rochester. Retrieved Dec 10, 2020.
  11. ^ "University Christian Church Celebrating the Community of Christ". Jul 28, 2011. Archived from the original on 2011-07-28. Retrieved Dec 10, 2020.
  12. ^ "Christ Presbyterian Celebrating Its 40th Boar's Head Festival". Nov 11, 2019.

External linksEdit