Attended by over 3000 people annually, AHCC’s Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival is a joyous and poignant celebration of Epiphany presented in January. With more than 250 people involved it has become the culminating event of the Greater Hartford holiday season.
Click here for a “sneak peek” of the Festival
As you might expect, months of planning are required to present the Festival. In the heat of the summer, the work on costumes begins. During the final weeks of December the choir rehearses and sets are built. On opening night and throughout the weekend, the Parish House is ablaze with lights and activity. In the kitchen, a dedicated crew arranges thousands of homemade cookies and tea sandwiches, and mixes 150 gallons of delicious punch. Upstairs, makeup crews perform their art, and all around is hustle and anticipation, as cast managers watch the clock to ensure everyone gets lined up for the procession. The sanctuary is decorated as if for a great banquet.
Upon entering, attendees are greeted by a brass ensemble, a mime, a juggler, a magician, stilt walkers, a puppeteer, a plague doctor, and jesters. These recall the Christmas entertainment provided by the Lord Mayor of London, where these festivities originated in the late 15th century and continue to this day. The Festival begins as bagpipers catch our attention and we watch a traditional highland dance. A narrator provides background for the lighting of the Yule Log, which gives way to a grand procession of lords and ladies who await the arrival of the High King and Queen of the Realm, who enter with great fanfare, and are accompanied by a student on horseback, who killed an attacking wild boar. In our festivities today, to celebrate and honor the student, they are invested as a knight into the Most Noble Order of the Asylum. A fanfare and singing herald announce the arrival of the boar’s head, symbolic of Christ’s triumph over evil, accompanied by the royal hunter and his attendants, full of pride. A great procession of cooks and staff follows, bringing forth a great feast. Then follow King Wenceslas and his page reminding us to help those in need, as they help welcome a peasant into the royal hall.
The festival builds in intensity to a rousing rendition of Deck the Hall. The entrance of dancers, accompanied by a grand Gloria, signals a spiritual change as the manor hall becomes a great cathedral for the worship of the newborn King. We prepare ourselves for Epiphany as a small child brings a lighted candle into the darkened church, symbolizing the coming of the light of Christ. We witness the arrival of Mary, Joseph, and a donkey, as we listen to the ageless melodies of O Little Town of Bethlehem and Once in Royal David’s City. In praise of the newborn Christ child, we hear Gaudete, and see a lively, Medieval dance. The shepherds, instructed by the angel, take their sheep and find the Holy Family, as the three kings and a full-size camel arrive in majesty and splendor, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
When “all mortal flesh” have assembled, they kneel in adoration – lords and servants, shepherds and kings – before the Lord of lords! As the church is darkened and the Epiphany star shines brightly, the Yule sprite returns, and together the child and a simple monk of the church carry forth Christ’s light to all people.
The first single performance of the Boar’s Head Festival in 1968 saw no grand costumes. Recycled draperies and bathrobes made up the collection. Grace Einsel baked and glazed a 50-pound boar’s head and lovingly prepared the big mince pie. All preparations finally ready, Grace and Dick Einsel, now our Minister of Music Emeritus, went home wondering: “Do you think anyone will come?” Well, they did come. And the next year they brought their friends. The rest is history.
With each passing year, artistic changes have allowed the Festival to remain fresh, while still maintaining its charm and delighting audiences. The tradition of the Boar’s Head Festival goes back to the days of the Roman Empire nearly two thousand years ago, when the boar was the first dish served at great Roman feasts. In Norman England, the boar was the sovereign of the forests, a menace to man and a symbol of evil. By the 12th century, the serving of the boar’s head at Christmastide had become symbolic of the triumph of Christ over Satan, and was associated with Epiphany, which celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Magi. The Yule Log, a burnt log from the fire of the previous year used to kindle the fire for the new year, represents both the warmth of the family fireside and the continuance of human life and concern. It has also, from earliest times, symbolized the rekindling of love, and of Christ’s love incarnate.
No one knows who planned the original Boar’s Head procession, but Queens College, Oxford records the festival shortly after the founding of the University in 1340 A.D. After three or four centuries at Oxford and Cambridge, the mince pie, the plum pudding and an expanded cast were added to the ceremony. The festival was a popular Christmas event at the great manor houses of 17th century England and the custom was carried to colonial America, where it was first presented in Connecticut.