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reed magazine logoDecember 2010

Hog Wild

Aristotle, Arragon, and Boris, the boar’s head.


photo by Orin Zyvan

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 cappella, 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 was imported to Reed in the 1920s, when Professor 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!”* This daring maneuver stopped the beast in its tracks. The victorious student retrieved his (dog-eared?) manuscript and brought the boar’s head back to Oxford, where it was duly roasted and eaten. (It remains unclear whether the boar was felled by the force of Aristotle’s logic or simply found his arguments impossible to digest.)

Over the years, Reed has honored the spirit of this beast with taxidermy, papier-mâché, and even ice-sculpture incarnations. During my tenure in the alumni office, we’ve rented a couple of noble creatures from Barbur Rentals, including “Boris,” christened by my colleague Mela Kunitz ’87. 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, Virginia Oglesby Hancock ’62 [music, 1991+] 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 John Hancock [chemistry, 1955–89] and others sang for many years. (For a history of the carol and a video of the procession, see

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; the boar in our procession holds a plush Reed griffin in his mouth, feet up but kicking all the way. 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.

—Robin M. Tovey ’97

Thanks to Laurie Lindquist and Virginia Oglesby Hancock ’62 for their help with this article.

* “It’s Greek to me.”


The Boar’s Head Carol

The boar’s head in hand bear I,
Bedecked with bays and rosemary;
And I pray you my masters, be merry,
Quot estis in convivio. (As many as are in the feast.)
Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes domino.
(The boar’s head I offer, giving praises to the Lord)

The boar’s head as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all the land,
Which thus bedecked with a gay garland,
Let us servire cantico. (serve with a song.)

Our steward hath provided this,
In honour of the King of bliss,
Which on this day to be served is,
In Reginensi atrio. (In the Queen’s hall.)

Join us: Alumni Holiday Party

Saturday, December 18, 6 p.m. For details and registration, see


reed magazine logoDecember 2010