The boar’s head procession at Reed’s alumni holiday party has its roots in medieval England.

The boar’s head procession at Reed’s alumni holiday party has its roots in medieval England.

The Feast of the Beast

Wild boar, Aristotle, and Reed’s enigmatic festival of light.

By Ethyl Elwood | November 26, 2018

A frosty winter’s night. The somber notes of a bagpiper cut through the smoky haze of the student union, heralding an otherworldly procession. Hooded figures in black robes wind through the crowd, singing a noble carol, brandishing flaming torches, and bearing on their shoulders the head of a boar!

This mesmerizing scene is a beloved feature of the annual alumni holiday party and came to Reed in the 1920s, when Prof. Rex Arragon [history 1923–74] brought the tradition from Queen’s College, Oxford.

The ultimate origins of the procession are older, of course. According to William Henry Husk, librarian to the Sacred Harmonic Society, the custom dates to the 15th century, when a valorous student encountered a wild boar during a walk in the Shotover Forest on Christmas Day. The boar charged; the student defended himself with the only weapon at his disposal—a copy of Aristotle, which he thrust into the boar’s open mouth, exclaiming “Græcum est!”  (It’s Greek to me.)

This daring maneuver stopped the beast in its tracks. (It remains unclear whether the boar was felled by the force of Aristotle’s logic or simply found his arguments impossible to digest.) In any case, the victorious student retrieved his (dog-eared?) manuscript and brought the boar’s head back to Oxford, where it was duly roasted and eaten. 

Over the years, Reed has honored the spirit of this beast with taxidermy, papier-mâché, and even ice-sculpture incarnations. In recent times, we’ve actually rented a boar’s head from Barbur Rentals, dubbed Boris. Sad to say, Boris met an unfortunate fate in 2004 when some students borrowed him in the wee hours and Reed dogs gnawed off one of his ears. Luckily, the proprietor of Barbur Rentals has been gracious enough to lend us another beast, dubbed Boris Jr., who comes directly from a permanent perch above his own mantel. We suspect that he lends us the prized trophy more out of appreciation for (amusement at?) our unusual ritual than monetary gain.

Songs in honor of the boar’s head are recorded from as early as the 14th century; our version of the carol originated with an arrangement published in the 1930s, that was passed down from generation to generation. In 1991, Prof. Virginia Oglesby Hancock ’62 [music] assumed leadership of the ensemble and reconstructed a harmonization from memory, incorporating the verse two countermelody and adjusting the parts for mixed voices. This current arrangement recalls the bass line that Prof. John Hancock [chemistry, 1955–89] and others sang for many years.

Virginia still leads the ensemble today, with alumni singers of all ages and even a student or two, as they carry the boar aloft on his pallet—er, litter. It is said that an orange or a lemon in the boar’s mouth symbolizes the volume that saved the student’s life. Whether you celebrate the 12 days of Christmas, the 8 nights of Chanukah, or another solstice-season ritual, we hope that you’ll be able to join us for this festive and stirring occasion.

What are you waiting for? Join us at the Holiday Party.



Tags: Alumni, Campus Life, Reed History