Arts Talk


Herald of history

Boar’s Head Festival a holiday rite for community

By Bonnie Blackburn
Most of the year, Jim Schmidt can be found in the front of a classroom, teaching his teenage students the ins and out of American history and sociology.

But come fall, he puts on his director’s cap and shepherds 175 (give or take) people through a spectacle of Medieval pageantry known as the Boar’s Head Festival. This free event (tickets are required as seating is limited) is put on by Plymouth Congregational Church Dec. 28-30 and has been entertaining area residents since 1975.

Based on centuries-old traditions, the Boar’s Head Festival celebrates the arrival of the Christ Child and the triumph of good (Christ) over evil (the wild boar). According to legend, the first recorded Boar’s Head Festival took place shortly after the founding of Queen’s College, Oxford, England in 1340. The Boar’s Head Festival came to America in early Colonial days and developed through Christian churches.

The festival has its roots in pagan times, when the boar, a “ferocious beast and sovereign of the forest, a danger and menace to all and therefore a symbol of evil,” according to information provided by Plymouth Church, would be the first dish served at Roman feasts. In Norman England, the presentation of the boar’s head represented the triumph of the Christ Child over sin.

The Festival at Plymouth draws from similar festivals in Cincinnati and Ann Arbor. Vincent Slater composed the music still performed today, while Howard Brown, Wanda Pohl and Don Goss created the production design, costumes and sets.  Schmidt joined the pageantry in the mid-1980s, after returning to his hometown of Fort Wayne with his wife, Jeannette, and their children.

The Festival takes place in two parts. First up is a secular recreation of a manor house’s feast, with dozens of costumed players representing the lord and lady of the manor, their guests and servants. The “coming of the Yule Sprite” symbolizes the coming of the Christ Child, bringing light in the form of a lit taper. Heralds and Beefeaters follow, accompanied by music and singing. Then the Christmas Story is enacted, with Mary and Joseph approaching the inn, angels appearing to shepherds and, of course, the arrivals of the Three Wise Men. The Festival concludes with all 175 (give or take) performers joining at the front of the sanctuary to sign “Alleluia” and “Adeste Fidelis.”

“The wonderful thing for me is the tradition,” Schmidt said. “I love when it occurs between Christmas Day and New Year’s. The hustle and bustle of Christmas has become so secular. (The Festival lets) people think about the meaning.”

Schmidt spends five of the six performances behind the scenes, directing the action. But on the last performance, he dons a jester’s costume and joins in the fun. And at the very end of the performance, the lights dim, with only the lit taper representing the Christ Child glowing softly in the sanctuary.

“It’s just incredible,” Schmidt said. “Everybody sits in absolute darkness. There are tears.”

Posted: Thu, 12/01/2011 - 4:09 pm
Last updated: Wed, 05/23/2012 - 3:08 pm