4th December, the Boar’s Head
Long before the turkey, and even before the goose, the traditional centre-piece of any Tudor or Medieval Yule-tide feast worth its salt (if, indeed a “centre” could be found amongst all the pies, roasts, marchpanes and sweetmeats!) was the roasted head of a wild boar, replete with apple or citron in its mouth.
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.”
In Scandinavia and England, St. Stephen may have inherited some of Freyr’s legacy. His feast day is December 26th, Boxing Day, 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 tending to horses and bringing a boar’s head to a Yuletide banquet. Both elements are extra-canonical and may be Pagan survivals. Christmas Ham is an old tradition in Sweden and England, and may have originated as a winter solstice boar sacrifice to Freyr.
The Boar ( or just its head) was adopted by Richard III ( “A Horse! A Horse! My Kingdom for a Horse!”) as an heraldic badge, a fact still commerorated today by a smattering of taverns across the land named the Boar’s Head.
Illustration copyright © Paul Bommer