The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Boar's Head

Source: Washington Irving, Old Christmas – From the Sketch Book of Washington Irving (London: Macmillan & Co., Fifth Edition, 1886), pp. 126-7; Illustrated by Randolph Caldecott.

Old Christmas – Christmas Dinner

The parson said grace, which was not a short, familiar one, such as is commonly addressed to the Deity, in these unceremonious days; but a long, courtly, well-worded one of the ancient school.

There was now a pause, as if something was expected; when suddenly the butler entered the hall with some degree of bustle: He was attended by a servant on each side with a large wax-light, and bore a silver dish, on which was an enormous pig's head decorated with rosemary, with a lemon in its mouth, which was placed with great formality at the head of the table. The moment this pageant made its appearance, the harper struck up a flourish ; at the conclusion of which the young Oxonian, on receiving a hint from the Squire, gave, with an air of the most comic gravity, an old carol, the first verse of which was as follows :

    Caput apri defero
    Reddens laudes Domino.
The boar s head in hand bring I,
With garlands gay and rosemary.
I pray you all synge merily
    Qui estis in convivio.

Though prepared to witness many of these little eccentricities, from being apprised of the peculiar hobby of mine host ; yet, I confess, the parade with which so odd a dish was introduced somewhat perplexed me, until I gathered from the conversation of the Squire and the parson that it was meant to represent the bringing in of the boar's head : a dish formerly served up with much ceremony, and the sound of minstrelsy and song, at great tables on Christmas day. “I like the old custom,”; said the Squire, “not merely because it is stately and pleasing in itself, but because it was observed at the College of Oxford, at which I was educated. When I hear the old song chanted, it brings to mind the time when I was young and gamesome and the noble old college hall and my fellow-students loitering about in their black gowns ; many of whom, poor lads, are now in their graves !”

The parson, however, whose mind was not haunted by such associations, and who was always more taken up with the text than the sentiment, objected to the Oxonian’s version of the carol: which he affirmed was different from that sung at college. He went on, with the dry perseverance of a commentator, to give the college reading, accompanied by sundry annotations: addressing himself at first to the company at large; but finding their attention gradually diverted to other talk, and other objects, he lowered his tone as his number of auditors diminished, until he concluded his remarks, in an under voice, to a fat-headed old gentleman next him, who was silently engaged in the discussion of a huge plateful of turkey.

Irving's Note:

The old ceremony of serving up the boar's head on Christmas day is still observed in the hall of Queen's College, Oxford. I was favoured by the parson with a copy of the carol as now sung, and as it may be acceptable to such of my readers as are curious in these grave and learned matters, I give it entire.

The boar's head in hand bear I,
Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary ;
And I pray you, my masters, be merry,
    Quot estis in convivio.
        Caput apri defero
        Reddens laudes Domino.

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.
        Caput apri defero, etc.

Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of Bliss,
Which on this day to be served is
    In Reginensi Atrio.
        Caput apri defero,”

            Etc. etc. etc.


Translations of the Latin from Adams, Round About Our Coal Fire (ca. 1860)

W. H. Davenport Adams provided these handy Latin translations for those of us who were unable to take a course of study in this ancient tongue.

1. Quot estis in convivio. = Ye who are now at the feast.
2. Caput Apri defero | Reddens laudes Domino. - I bring the boar's head, returning praise to the Lord.
3. Let us servire cantico. = Let us serve it with a song.
4. In Reginensi Atrio. = In the Queen's Hall.

Translations from W. H. Davenport Adams, Round About Our Coal Fire (London: James Blackwood, no date; "1860" written in pen, and the date of the Preface), p. 163.

Editor's Note:

The illustration above was by Randolph Caldecott. See:

This version given by Irving in 1820 was identical to the version sung at Queen's College in 1811. See: The Boar's Head in Hand Bear I.

"Christmas Dinner" originally appeared in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, commonly referred to as The Sketch Book, a collection of 34 essays and short stories written by Washington Irving. It was published serially in seven paperbound installments, appearing intermittently between June 23, 1819, and September 13, 1820, by New York publisher C.S. Van Winkle. Each installment was published simultaneously in New York, Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. A two-volume set was published in England in 1820, and a single-volume edition was published in the US in 1824. "Christmas Dinner" was one of five short stories published in the Fifth Installment, January 1, 1820. The five stories were the "Old Christmas" that Crayon/Irving celebrated at "Bracebridge Hall", and included:

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