The term ‘carol’ was originally a derivation of a French word referring to a dance. Sometime around the 15th century, it was in regular use in English as a reference to religious songs. While the word ‘carol’ now generally refers to any sacred Christmas hymn, true carols were a body of work created in England between the 15th and 17th centuries. A large number of these have survived to the present day, a few of which are still in regular use. One of these that has endured the test of time, at least at Oxford University, is the Boar’s Head Carol.
The Boar’s Head Carol is one of the oldest known Christmas songs. Dating back to the 15th century, it describes a traditional Christmas feast: a boar’s head which is being presented to an assemblage of holiday celebrants in honor of the birth of Jesus. Oddly, Jesus probably would have rejected the boar’s head as it was not kosher. Unlike many other early carols, the Boar’s Head is not shrouded in myth. It refers to a specific event: an annual festival, the Boar’s Head Feast, which is one of the world’s oldest annual Christmas events.
The tradition of the Boar’s Head Feast dates back to 1340 at Queens College at Oxford University. As the story goes, a student was on his way to church on Christmas Eve when he was threatened by a wild boar. Somehow, he managed to choke the boar to death with a textbook on Aristotle. The boar was then consumed at a holiday dinner. The dinner became an annual Christmas event, and is still observed nearly seven centuries later. The Boar’s Head Feast later spread to Cambridge University, and ultimately to other colleges and schools around the world.
Queen’s College is among the older schools at Oxford, and one of its most presitigious. It was founded in 1341, which was actually a year after the fabled boar attack. It is famous for its Chapel Choir. The Boar’s Head feast takes place annually in the college dining hall, where a soloist from the choir sings the carol while other students present the trimmed boar’s head. While the feast may not be open to the public, the college and its choir certainly are. Stroll around the campus at Christmastime, and maybe you’ll get lucky. Web: www.queens.ox.ac.uk (official website of Queens College)