Boars' Heads And Even More Ancient Holiday Fun

Saturday is the annual "Boar's Head Gaudy" at Queens College at Oxford University. Every year right before Christmas, the college invites alumni to the dinner, which begins with the pomp and circumstance of bearing a boar's head on a platter. It's a party that goes back about 600 years. Host Scott Simon speaks with Elaine Fantham, professor emerita of classics at Princeton University, about the ancient rituals and traditions that inspire holiday celebrations.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon.

Today at Queens College, Oxford, it's the annual Boar's Head Gaudy. Every year, right before Christmas, the college invites alumni to the dinner, which begins with the pomp and circumstance of bearing a boar's head in on a platter. Alumni - they call them old members - await their invitation to the gaudy with much anticipation.

Queens College has been having this party for, hmm, 600 years or so. But the allure of the wild boar goes back further than that.

It's with much anticipation that we turn to our friend from the world of classics, Elaine Fantham in Toronto, to tell us more.

Elaine, thanks so much for being back with us.

Professor ELAINE FANTHAM (Princeton University): So nice to be back, I assure you.

SIMON: Whats the significance of the boar?

Prof. FANTHAM: It was the most luxurious food available to the Romans, unless you went in for swan stuffed with turkey stuffed with geese, et cetera. So its importance in satirical writing comes from the fact that anybody pretentious would have a boar at their feast.

SIMON: I understand Pliny the Younger has a role here.

Prof. FANTHAM: Yes. Well, this is Pliny in his letter to Tacitus. Now, Tacitus was of course the most important writer and thinker of the generation. And Pliny thought you will laugh and you won't believe it, but I've already caught three wild boars. And then he goes on, of course, to explain how he had done this.

Younger Pliny was adopting the old Roman tactic of hunting by proxy. Thats to say you have your stout young servants do the work and you just proudly say, guess what, I caught three boars.

And Pliny explains he's a multi-tasker, that he has, in fact, brought his notebooks and is writing this letter at the same time that he is catching all these wild boars - and isnt he clever.

SIMON: Now, Elaine, tell me about the Queens College part.

Prof. FANTHAM: Well, you know, these processional things were a great thing in these privileged colleges, which were the place where rich young men went to enjoy themselves unsupervised by their fathers. Imagine a college hall, and most of these college halls have the same layout, there's a dais and on top of this platform there is a particularly handsome table and leather studded chairs, and thats where the permanent fellows and dons sit to eat.

And down below in the body of the hall there will probably be three rows of long tables with benches, old and polished wood. And the students who come into hall would sit there and clap and sing as the procession came in.

And when it got up to the high table, where the dons hung out, my guess is that that is when a special carver would appear with a very fierce knife to start slicing out the meat and giving it in order of precedence, because there were people whom I know as Cisors(ph), though there were other names, who were admitted to the university without (unintelligible) on condition that they worked as college servants.

SIMON: Do you know the "Boar's Head Christmas Carol"?

Prof. FANTHAM: (Singing) The boar's head in hand bear I, bedecked by - bay and rosemary. And I beg you, my masters, be merry, Quot estis in convivio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FANTHAM: Im going to stop there.

SIMON: That was beautiful.

Prof. FANTHAM: Well, thank you.

SIMON: Elaine Fantham, professor emerita of Classics at Princeton University, speaking with us from Toronto.

Happy hunting, Elaine.

Prof. FANTHAM: Thank you. Tallyho.

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