The Boar’s Head

Black and white illustration of a boar's head procession

Ushering In The Boar’s Head. (Sandys, 1852)

Boar hunting was a very old activity. Wild pigs can be very damaging to land and property and they are a very dangerous hunting target. Having a board’s head as a first course at a dinner was a sign of success and proficiency in both combat and providing for dependents. Long before the turkeys from the New World or the traditional goose, the centerpiece of any Tudor or medieval feast worth its salt  was the roasted head of a wild boar, replete with apple or citron in its mouth. In Hollinshed’s Chronicles there is a description of a feast King Henry II held in  1170 which began with a boar’s head.

There also was a custom among the Norse and Anglo-Saxons was a midwinter sacrifice of wild boar to Freyr (Ingwi to Anglo-Saxons) As time went on this custom became associated with the Christmas season. In Scandinavia and England, St. Stephen may have inherited some of Freyr’s legacy. His Feast Day is December 26 (Boxing Day) and thus he came to play a part in the Yuletide celebrations which were previously associated with Freyr. In old Swedish art, Stephen is shown as tending to horses and bringing a boar’s head to a Yuletide banquet. The Christmas ham is an old tradition in Sweden & England, and may be a legacy of the winter solstice boar sacrifice to Freyr.

The “Boar’s Head Carol” is a 15th century English Christmas carol that describes the ancient tradition of sacrificing a boar and presenting its head at a Yuletide feast. It is one of the oldest known Christmas songs, dating back to the 15th century. 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’.

Here is a version in more modern English.

The Boar’s Head Carol

The boar’s head in hand bring I,                                                                                            Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.                                                                                                       I pray you, my masters, be merry                                                                                                Quot estis in convivio. (when you are feasting)
Caput apri defero (The head I carry)                                                                                     Reddens laudes Domino ( giving praise 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 (serve with a song)                                                                                  Caput apri defero                                                                                                                      Reddens laudes Domino

Our steward hath provided this
In honor of the King of Bliss;
Which, on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio. ( the monarch’s hall)
Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

The mightiest hunter of them all
We honor in this festal hall
Born of a humble Virgin mild,
Heaven’s King became a little child:
Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

He hunted down through earth and hell
That swart boar Death until it fell.
This mighty deed for us was done,                                                                                      Therefore sing we in unison:                                                                                                       Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

Let not this boar’s head cause alarm,
The huntsman drew his power to harm.
So death, which still appears so grim,
Has yielded all its power to Him!
Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

At Queens College at Oxford University the tradition of the Boar’s Head Feast dates back to 1340.  According to legend, a student who was attacked by a boar on Christmas Eve in 1340 overcame the animal by ramming a book of Aristotle down its throat and choking it death. Thus pork was served for Christmas dinner and the dinner became an annual  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. . . But, in honor of Christmas, the boar’s head was presented, not to the hapless scholar, but to the Christ Child whose birth was being celebrated.  



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Pot of steaming wassail drink

By Jeremy Tarling from London, United Kingdom [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Wassail comes from the Old English words waes hael, which means “be well,” “be hale,” or “good health.” A strong, hot drink (usually a mixture of ale, honey, and spices) would be put in a large bowl, and the host would lift it and greet his companions with “waes hael,” to which they would reply “drinc hael,” which meant “drink and be well.”

Wassail is a hot, mulled punch often associated with Yuletide, drunk from a ‘wassailing bowl’. The earliest versions were warmed mead into which roasted crab apples were dropped and burst to create a drink called lambswool. Later, the drink evolved to become a mulled cider made with sugar,cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, topped with slices of toast as sops. Modern recipes begin with a base of wine, fruit juice or mulled ale, sometimes with brandy or sherry added. Apples or oranges are often added to the mix, and some recipes also call for beaten eggs to be tempered into the drink.

Great bowls turned from wood, pottery or tin often had many handles for shared drinking and highly decorated lids; antique examples can still be found in traditional pubs. Hence the first stanza of the traditional carol the Gloucestershire Wassail dating back to the Middle Ages.

Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink unto thee.

In the cider-producing counties in the South of England wassailing refers to a traditional ceremony that involves singing and drinking to the health of trees on Twelfth Night to awaken the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest the next autumn.  The ceremonies of each wassail vary from village to village but they generally all have the same core elements. A wassail King and Queen lead the song and/or a processional tune to be played/sung from one orchard to the next; the wassail Queen is then lifted into the boughs of the tree where she places toast soaked in wassail from the cup as a gift to the tree spirits (and to show the fruits created the previous year). In some counties the youngest boy or “Tom Tit” will stand in for the Queen and hang the cider soaked toast in the tree. Then an incantation is usually recited, such as he following:

Old Apple tree, old apple tree;
We’ve come to wassail thee;
To bear and to bow apples enow;
Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full;
Barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs.[3]

Lamb’s wool or lambswool is now made as a variety of wassail with baked apples rather than crabapples, sugar and spices. There are also now some non-alcoholic versions of wassail. I usually make lamb’s wool rather than other recipes which are too complicated modern versions or really just spiced cider. I usually have a few long keeping apples left from October which need to be used up and making lamb’s wool is a good way to do it.

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Caturday Thoughts: Another Winter, Another Year Almost Gone

Dark, cloudy skies against treesThis past week my “baby” Cloud had his first “senior” exam. His sister Skye goes on Monday. This came as a sharp reminder of time’s passage. Another year is winding down and we have another winter to get through. I still have not located the snow shovel in the storage, although I did get the winter drapes. I found the tub with some of my sweaters but not the one with my gloves and scarves. The fireplace needs servicing, which of course is on me rather than the cheapskate landlord. I don’t mind paying for cleaning, after all, I am the one making it dirty, but it needs some repairs.  The bricks at the back of the fireplace need repointing, among other thing and it would be dangerous to use it until this is done, as the heat would transmit through to the back wall in the “so-called” dining room.

Tuesday was a classic example of those winter days when it’s hard to get up any ambition. A sure sign of the state of things was that by late morning Skye was curled into a ball with her mother Milk on the futon next to me. Dolly was on the other side. Simba and Cloud were curled up at the foot of it, and Mi Sun was curled up in her chosen hidewaway after a final double-checking of the breakfast bowls for overlooked “crunchies”. Charli was in her doorless carrier, deep in the folds of an old wool cloak a friend shrank in the wash and was going to chuck out. What a waste! I rescued it for the perfect cat cuddle blanket. It was a day for napping in warm places. It was grey and cold and windy outside. Although most of the snow of the other day has melted off it clings tenaciously in certain spots out of reach of the sun.

For me it was a day for doing introspective, gloomy day things like writing and starting to plan for the coming year. In a review of things it seemed as though about the time my late aunt began her downhill slide almost everything else followed suite, from keeping up with email and paperwork, to working on my schoolwork and business prospects. I do not intend a repeat in the coming year. I did do some holiday things to offset the gloom. I wrapped a package to mail to my old roommate YJ and the gift baskets for my auto shop and vet’s office.

Close up of Jansson's Temptaion

By erik forsberg from Helsingborg, Sweden [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

While I was at it I ordered my Swedish style anchovies (actually sprats) for my Jansson’s Frestelse (temptation) so I would have them before Christmas. Last year in desperation I used real anchovies but it was not the same. Mind you, I like anchovies, on pizza and sandwiches and other ways, but they are not right for this dish, really.  The potatoes, onions and cream are easily obtained but not so the proper fish. I’m looking foraward to doing it right this year.

It was also a good day for slow cooking things. I finished transferring a batch of mussel and leek soup to freezer containers and started a new soup in the large kettle using bone broth I had made earlier as a base. Frozen leftover carrots, some onion and herbs went in next. I’ll keep poking in the freezer to see what I can come up with. It will be like a stone soup. I like to try and use up leftovers in soup and I like to have soup ready to heat up. I often find in this kind of weather if I get cold I can’t seem to warm up again and soup will often do the trick.

Bowl of clementinesI started my holiday version of cranberry sauce. I rarely use a written recipe but it’s quite simple. Into a slow cooker go two bags of fresh whole cranberries; about a dozen mandarins, clementines or tangerines, peeled and sectioned; two cups each water and orange juice;  two sticks of cinnamon, broken up and a large finger of fresh ginger, cut in thin slices.  You want the lot to be covered by liquid so you can add more of either water or juice as it cooks,but the juice offsets the sour cranberries better. I add whole cloves too, but I’m willing to pick them out later, otherwise you can add any ground spices you like near the end. hat goes for the cinnamon and ginger as well, if all you have is the ground type.

The weather continued to deteriorate as the day went on. A few small flashes of sunlight could not offset the rising wind in the late afternoon. By late evening even the noise of the furnace intake vent (which pretty much sounds like a 747 taking off) could not drown out the sound of high winds and the whistling as they tried to insinuate themselves through the countless cracks around the doors and windows.  Winter is well and truly here.

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In and Out

Last night for some reason I did not see to want to sleep. I was not jittery or keyed up and I hadn’t had ore than the normal amount of coffee. I was relaxed but nor sleepy and so just listened to some audio recordings until finally sleepy. I slept well but I woke up very late. Thankfully I had managed to get my coffee and feed the cats before my cleaner help turned up. The cleaner came in and went out. Thankfully this time I was able to fiddle with the guts of the toilet so it flushed properly so she could clean it. The tub is still, or rather again, not draining properly. Still, for the most part dirt all that needed it got cleaned and the dirt went out in the trash bag of the cleaner. I think cleaning is part of any holiday or celebration and a clean environment lifts the energy in any place.

When I opened the door to her I realized I had been smart to run my errands yesterday. Once again it was grey with overcast, gloomy and very cold. Nonetheless, after she was gone I forced myself out, to bring in the stepladder I had been using to trim the big shrub at the kitchen window and to bring out the lawnmower and load it into the back of the truck. Having no basement and unlike all the other houses in the neighborhood, no shed, I had it in the kitchen. I got tired of working around it. In the truck it is now out of the way. The stepladder was a safer alternative to standing on a chair to replace some ceiling fixture light bulbs. But it was two cups of coffee to warm up afterward. Blecch!


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A Bit of Busy for the Season

Yesterday was sunny but windy and bitterly cold (at least to me). Last night I finished addressing YJ’s package and hung the stockings. I realized we do not have one for little Charli. I will pick one up Saturday at the thrift. In years past I had no place for stockings and in this house I only had enough that one stocking served for two cats. Last year I got a couple more when my friend has to move the shop in December, so that each cat had one. I had seriously considered getting a cut Christmas tree this year but decided against it. I chose to spend the money on food. I had put up my Advent calendar and nutcrackers on the cabinet in the living room and hung some ornaments from the odd assortment of nails in the fireplace masonry and others off the big antique mirror on the mantelpiece. It seems festive enough and I don’t have to rearrange the furniture or move the cats’ boxes. I can’t use the fireplace until it’s repaired but I think I will bring in a big log and decorate it as a Yule log even if I can’t burn it.

Last night some of the  people from one of my favorite YouTube channels, Ghastly Tales, had live hangout, probably as close as I’ll get to a Christmas party. But it was crazy in a good way and fun and like a tiny visit to Glasgow (that’s where they are), one of my favorites places. Not many folk I can compare notes with on getting into the Necropolis through holes in the fence. I finished off the last couple of bottles of Nosferatu ale left over from Halloween and considered it a well spent two hours.

Today was still windy but warmer and I decided it was the day to run some seasonal errands. I went to the post office to mail a card and a package and drove over to Harrisonburg to drop off a small cellophane-wrapped tower of food treats for the crew at my car repair shop. Just a block from them is one of the only bagel shops in the area. The other is in Charlottesville and both are just short of an hour away. So I took the opportunity to pick up bagels for holiday breakfasts and brunches.  Across town is the Euro Market and I also took the trouble to drive over and pick up some treats for Christmas and New Year’s eve.

My shopping is done now and everything mailed or delivered except the package of food treats for the vet’s office. That I’ll take with Miss Dolly, who has appointments with Dr. Blair, the opthamologist and the regular vet on the 20th. I just have the vet appointments for Skye and Dolly and I can relax for a bit. I haven’t had a proper vacation in a long time and I tend to feel like I should be doing something productive and serious. It always winds up I am tired and less focused and then less productive. I think a break to enjoy the holidays at leisure will help me break this ridiculous pattern. Those “Don’t just sit around, why aren’t you doing X, Y, Z?” voices are relegated to ghosts of the past, a fitting end to them at the end of a year I feel was not up to snuff. I got home just in time for the cat’s dinner. I didn’t eat myself. I had a late lunch of kebab at the middle eastern cafe and bakery, so I wasn’t hungry. It’s in the same strip mall with the Euro Market and I bought a selection of her wonderful cookies to have over the holidays, too. Instead of eating again I made some mulled wine and tucked myself up with warm covers and cats and relaxed.

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Santa Lucia Day

Danish girls in the Lucia candlelight procession at a Helsingør public school, 2001Saint Lucy or Santa Lucia, was a wealthy young Christian martyr, killed in Syracuse, Sicily, by Diolcletian.  Her feast day in the West is 13 December . Her name comes from lux, lucis “light,” and she is the patron saint of those who are blind or have eye-trouble and interestingly, salesmen and writers.  Her day is also memorialized in this poem by John Donne.

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day

By John Donne 

‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,                                                                            Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;                                                                                         The sun is spent, and now his flasks                                                                                                     Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;                                                                                                    The world’s whole sap is sunk;                                                                                        The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,                                                              Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,                                                                               Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,                                                                Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be                                                                                              At the next world, that is, at the next spring;                                                                                                  For  I am every dead thing,                                                                                                                    In whom Love wrought new alchemy.                                                                                                           For his art did express                                                                                                        A quintessence even from nothingness,                                                                                     From dull privations, and lean emptiness;                                                                                    He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot                                                                                                       Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,                                                                         Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;                                                                                           I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave                                                                                                           Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood                                                                                                                     Have we two wept, and so                                                                                              Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow                                                                        To be two chaoses, when we did show                                                                                         Care to aught else; and often absences                                                                               Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)                                                                           Of the first nothing the elixir grown;                                                                                                               Were I a man, that I were one                                                                                                                I needs must know; I should prefer,                                                                                                            If I were any beast,                                                                                                   Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,                                                             And love; all, all some properties invest;                                                                                         If I an ordinary nothing were,                                                                                                            As shadow, a light and body must be here.


But I am none; nor will my sun renew.                                                                                         You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun                                                                                                      At this time to the Goat is run                                                                                                                To fetch new lust, and give it you,                                                                                                                   Enjoy your summer all;                                                                                            Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,                                                                                      Let me prepare towards her, and let me call                                                                                  This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this                                                                                 Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.

St Lucy's buns (Lussebullar)

By Per Ola Wiberg from Ekerö, Sweden [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

In the legend surrounding her she had her eyes put out before being killed. In some versions of the tale God restores her sight. Saint Lucy is one of the very few saints celebrated by members of the Lutheran Church among the Scandinavian peoples, who take part in Saint Lucy’s Day celebrations that retain many elements of Germanic paganism. It is a highlight of the Advent season. Traditionally the oldest daughter of any household dresses in a white robe with a red sash and a wreath of evergreens and 12 lighted candles upon her head. Assisted by any siblings she may have, she then serves coffee and a special St Lucia bun, Lussekatt in Swedish, to her parents and family. The Lussekatter or Lussebollar are spiced buns flavoured with saffron and other spices. The wreath of candles comes from the tradition that says St. Lucy would wear a wreath of candles on her head so she could see better in the catacombs, her arms full of supplies for poor Christians hiding from persecution in underground dark.

Donne’s poem gives us the roots of the customs of St Lucy’s Day. The saint of light’s day falls on the date of the Winter Solstice in the Old Julian Calendar; it begins with: “‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,”. Saint Lucy’s Day is celebrated most commonly in Scandinavia where it is believed a good celebration of Saint Lucy’s Day will help get people through the long winter days with enough light. St Lucys day is also celebrated in Italy and in Croatia on the Dalmation coast. She  is he patron saint of Siracusa in Sicily and they have not one  but two processions in her honor. They also eat a delicious wheat based pudding, cuccia, in honor of the day. In Hungary and Croatia, a popular tradition on Saint Lucy’s Day involves planting wheat grains that will eventually be several centimetres high on Christmas, representing the birth of Jesus. 

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The Last Month of the Year

Large white gooseChristmas is coming,
The Goose is getting Fat.
Please put a Penny
In the Old Man’s Hat.
If you haven’t got a Penny
A Hapenny will do.
If you haven’t got a Hapenny
God bless you!

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