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Boar’s Head Festival: A festive end to Christmastide

 

Cindy Solomon
November-December 2016

For more than 30 years, the Boar's Head Festival has drawn crowds to Trinity United Methodist Church in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The grand Epiphany festival originated in the Roman Empire when the boar was the first dish served at great Roman feasts. By the 12th century, the serving of the boar's head at Christmastide had become a symbol of the triumph of Christ over Satan.

Trinity Church began this tradition after several members attended a Boar's Head Festival in Hartford, Connecticut.

"We realized Trinity had the potential to produce such an event," said Becky Rosendahl Isaacson, Trinity's director of music ministry and musical director for the festival. "Our Gothic cathedral sanctuary and many talented and artistic church members made this festival a natural."

With support from the church staff and congregation, fundraising for the production began. The first festival took place in January of 1984 with a cast of 50 members. Today, more than 200 adults and children have roles, including 80 singers of all ages.

Gift to the community

"Originally, the festival was meant to be a gift to the community, as well as a fundraiser for the congregation," said the Rev. John E. Mueller, Trinity pastor. Ten percent of the festival proceeds support local missions.

"It is still a powerful gift to the community, as evidenced by the sold-out performances," Mueller continued. "It's a wonderfully creative, musical, visual, inspiring, fun, playful, meaningful and stirring way of telling the story of the birth of Christ."

An event of this size and magnitude doesn't just happen overnight. Festival planning begins in March when chairpersons are chosen for 20 committees, including decorations, lighting, tickets, properties, costumes, meal preparation and serving and ushers. Costumes and props are made and maintained by church members.

Adult casting of non-singers begins in June and children's casting is in September. Live animals used in the production include three camels, goats, sheep, llamas, a horse, chickens, geese and a bird of prey, such as a falcon.

Rehearsals for singers, dancers, Beefeaters and instrumentalists begin in November. On New Year's Day, the cast, sans professional singers and instrumentalists and the animals, comes together for a complete run-through. The week before the performance dates, there is a full-cast dress rehearsal.

Forty-five minutes before each performance — there are five over three days – final preparations begin as the audience arrives.

Celebrating the light of the world

"It is somewhat chaotic, earthy and dramatic as the townspeople gather to make the sanctuary ready for the festival," Rosendahl said. "The preparation includes unique town characters such as the jester, magician, midwife, storyteller, local beggar, prioress and nuns, friar, woodsmen and town carolers. At the appointed hour, Lord Asbury declares that the Boar's Head Festival will begin."

A choir of monks enters in darkness followed by a tiny sprite bringing in the lighted candle representing Christ, the light of the world. Christmas choral and instrumental music continues for the next 75 minutes.

Among the scenes created are the boar's head procession, entrance of the nobility, King Wenceslas with the snow dancers, Father Christmas, the shepherds with their live animals, and the three kings with camels, pages and canopy bearers.

At the end, all kneel in adoration as the Te Deum stained glass window shines over the cathedral. After the entire cast has recessed, the sprite reenters and, along with the pastor, goes forth to the world with the light.

"Sharing in this experience over the course of the weeks leading up to the festival helps bring the congregation together," Mueller said. "A wonderful and powerful aspect of the Boar's Head Festival is its inter-generational nature. Children, youth and adults all work, play, rehearse, celebrate and make a contribution together. It is a very important part of the ministry; people have been led to join Trinity Church after attending the festival.

"Through the festival, we are able to share this very important story with people — some of whom might not otherwise come to Trinity to learn about or celebrate the story. It also helps us to extend the celebration of this important season of the year. Often, the day after Christmas, people are taking down trees and stores have packed up their Christmas items and put out new merchandise. The festival enables us to truly celebrate the season of Christmas and the Epiphany."

While preparation and rehearsals for the festival begin in December, many other events are on Trinity's calendar for the Advent and Christmas seasons. Two Christmas concerts by the Trinity Chamber Singers and an Advent workshop and caroling to shut-ins are part of the church's traditions, as are seasonal Bible studies, a family Christmas night hike and multiple Christmas Eve services.

"We also invite each other to participate in a ‘Christmas Is Not Your Birthday' initiative and lift up three mission priorities for the coming year," Mueller concluded.

Cindy Solomon is a marketing consultant and content writer living in Franklin, Tennessee.