Twelfth Night – Wassailing, and the Boar’s Head Feast

Anglo-Saxon tradition dictated that at the beginning of each year, the lord of the manor would greet the assembled multitude with the toast waes hael, meaning “be well” or “be in good health”… the Wassailing celebrations generally take place on the Twelfth Night, 5th January.

Source: Wassailing | Historic UK

Tonight is Twelfth Night, the night of the Twelfth (and final) Day of Christmastide – although some traditionalists will continue to celebrate all the way up until Candlemas, on February 2nd, even I don’t (usually) go that far! One of the customs that grew up around Twelfth Night, in “Merrie Olde England,” was Wassailing (from “Waes hael,” Old English for “be hale,” or “be healthy” (*).


*  “Halig,” in Old English, from which we get hael, and from thence our (somewhat archaic) modern English word “hale,” can mean not only hale and healthy, but whole – think “holistic” – and even “holy.” These are all word-concepts that were closely related in the language and thought of our ancient ancestors!


Apple trees were wassailed, in hope of a good apple harvest in the Autumn, and groups of wassailers went from door to door – in a sort of cross between mumming and trick-or-treat – singing carols, and begging food, drink, and “a penny” (which of course was worth much more than one of our pennies: originally, a “penny” was a Roman denarius, and was reckoned as a day’s wage) from the householders. Here is one of the wassailing songs – probably the most famous!

For further information on both varieties of wassailing, read the linked article!

Another Twelfth Night custom that has experienced somewhat of a revival in recent years – especially in more traditional and liturgically-minded churches, but also some residential schools – is the Boar’s Head Feast.

No photo description available.

The centerpiece of the feast is the head of a wild boar (or nowadays, usually a domestic pig), and sometimes the whole animal, was roasted and carried ceremonially into the feasting-hall, accompanied by musicians and revelers singing a traditional carol (called, appropriately, “The Boar’s Head Carol”), the chorus of which goes,

Caput apri defero,
Reddens laudes Domino!

(“I bring in the boar’s head, giving thanks to the Lord!”)

The song is in what in musical terms is called the “macaronic” mode, which means that it combines two languages: in this case, English and Latin. It has been noted that

“The Boar’s Head Carol is ancient compared to most of the carols for Christmas. It actually was written in Middle English and titled, ‘The Bores Heed in Hande Bring I’ and wasn’t considered a Christmas Carol except for the custom of eating your finest meal at Christmastime. In that way, wild boar became associated with Christmas.”

This is only partially true, however. There is a Christmas, and therefore specifically Christian, meaning underpinning the song, as another commentator has pointed out:

“In medieval times if you traveled from village to village, you’d generally go by footpath through the woods. Being attacked by a wild boar was a very real possibility and a sharp stick wasn’t much of a defensive weapon. Wild boars tore up people, domestic animals, vegetable gardens, vineyards etc. so they weren’t looked upon fondly and were considered entirely evil, even demonic by the common people.”

Of course, even in pre-Christian times, wild boars were feared (and respected) by the ancient Celtic and Germanic peoples. Warriors often took them as what we might call today “totem animals,” for their ferocity, and the extreme difficulty in killing them. But to continue:

“The boar’s head decorated on a platter, served at Christmas, symbolized the fact that Jesus Christ came to this earth, born of a virgin, to defeat sin, death and the Devil. It was/is a celebration of Christ’s victory over the devil. The carol mentions the ‘King of Bliss.’ That is referring to the Lord Jesus Christ who gives us bliss by having won for us eternal life. It was a different culture and mentality in medieval times but sometimes, they were spot-on.”

It takes a mental shift for us to think of eating pork as symbolizing victory over the Devil! But when you look at it in its historic context, it makes sense. Alas, no Boar’s Head Feast for me this night! I long for the time when I can once again host a Twelfth Night gathering, but that time is not yet. However, I did enjoy crock-potted barbecued pork for supper, and am still enjoying a large mug of homemade wassail, made with Baugher’s apple cider (and mulling spices), with a splash of orange juice and a touch of honey. Delicious!

The boar’s flesh, on a plate I ate:
Bedecked with sauce, that was its fate!
O, wassail I shall drink ’til late,
Et manducare cantico!

Wassailing through History

Source: Wassailing through History on the Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site

‘Tis the season of Wassail, a custom which for hundreds of years has been linked with the Midwinter holidays — Christmas (Yuletide) and, more recently, New Year’s. Here is a reasonably detailed, yet readable and (to me at least) quite fascinating historical discussion of the custom, courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation!