In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, amen.
If you ever happen to be passing through Queen’s college at Oxford University at Christmas time, you may encounter a very strange custom. In that college there is a tradition of having a very special feast at Christmas. The feast begins with torchbearers entering the dining hall, accompanied by a herald who sings a once famous Christmas Carol, and the chef who bears in his hands the evening’s piece-de-resistance: a boar’s head.
The carol that the herald sings, and in which the guests join in singing, is known as the boar’s head carol. It is quite old, and was once quite popular, just as the boar’s head feast was quite popular and held in many places throughout England. But I am willing to guess, that unless you are someone who studies obscure traditions, or unless you are from one of the few places where this tradition is maintained, you have probably never heard of this carol.
You aren’t going to hear it on the radio, or in the stores, and it isn’t likely to be found on any new recordings of Christmas music. If you manage to look it up, or if you actually find an old recording of it these are the lyrics you will find:
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.
Caput apri defero.
Reddens laudes Domino.
The boar’s head, as I understand,
Is the bravest dish in all the land;
When thus bedecked with a gay garland,
Let us servire cantico.
Our steward hath provided this,
In honour of the King of Bliss;
Which on this day to be served is
In Reginensi Atrio.
You may be wondering to yourself: what on earth does that carol have to do with Christmas? and you should be. The tradition that it describes and celebrates is something very foreign to most of us: unless you go to a luau in Hawaii, or a pig-picking down South, you probably are not accustomed to eating an animals head, much less of associating that with Christmas, and yet, for Christians centuries ago, this type of feast was as much a part of their idea of Christmas, as shopping for presents is for us today. They would have recognized this song as a Christmas Carol, because its lyrics celebrated part of their Christmas celebration.
For most of us now this song is merely a curiosity. It has died as a popular carol, and the reason it has died is not because it is old. There are plenty of even older carols that are still sung today: No, the reason it has died is because it no longer has any meaning to us. The song celebrates a tradition: it celebrates the Christmas Feast and the food and the decorations; it celebrates the customs of Christmas, but what barely gets mentioned, in one momentary allusion at the end of the song, is the reason why the feast is being celebrated: in honor of the King of Bliss. The song’s primary purpose is to praise the celebration of Christmas, not the birth of Christ, but because our manner of celebrating has changed so much, it is hard for us to connect with, or to get much meaning from.
I began reflecting on this carol this year as I was doing my Christmas shopping, and like many of you was inundated by the constant blaring of holiday music in the stores and on the radio. As I was listening these songs, it occurred to me that our holiday music has become more and more about celebrating Christmas the season or Christmas the holiday, and less and less about celebrating Christ the man. Like the Boar’s head carol, so many of these songs celebrate customs or traditions that are meaningful to us in our own age, but I wonder how many of them will be meaningful 100 or 200 years from now. Will future generations, generations whose customs may be far different from our own, will they look back on our holiday music and wonder: “What on earth were they singing about?”
Customs and traditions come and go. The world we all live in changes everyday. The way we celebrate Christmas changes too, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Personally I would love to go to a boar’s head feast, but I am willing to guess that many of you would be less enthusiastic. Many of the traditions that are dear to us as a part of Christmas now, were really only begun within the last 150 years or so, and we can only imagine what Christmas may be like for our grandchildren, or their grandchildren. In every age, the way we celebrate Christmas changes, but the story of Christ does not. We think of secular Christmas music as being a modern phenomenon, it is not. The word secular just means “of the age,” it doesn’t mean the music is bad, it can be quite fun, what it means is that the music belongs to a certain place and time, and when the age has passed, much of the music does too. The Boars head carol and the boars head feast belong to a certain place and time, and now that that time has passed, those traditions have little relevance to our lives.
There is an expression that is used over and over again in the latin mass: in saecula saeculorum. It comes from the same root word that our word secular (or age) comes from and it means “in the age of all ages”. The phrase is used over and over again as the ending to our important prayers: we usually translate it as “forever and ever” or “throughout all ages.” It is a reminder to us that the story we are telling here, not just tonight but at every mass, it is a reminder that this story is not just about our own age, or about something that happened long long ago: It is a story that is about and concerns all ages. There is a reason why songs like the Boar’s Head carol have mostly passed away, and other songs like Adeste Fideles or Of the Father’s love begotten have remained popular. One song celebrates Christmas, the other songs celebrate Christ. One type of song has meaning in one age or era, the other type has meaning throughout all ages.
Tonight we are not here to celebrate Christmas, we are here to celebrate Christ. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t participate in the holiday celebrations that are secular or “of the age,” what it does mean is that we should never lose sight of exactly what it is that we are celebrating. In the prayer book we pray that we “may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal.” After the food has gone cold, the company has outworn their welcome, the gifts have been opened and the garland has dried and wilted, what will we have left of Christmas? We will have the one thing that doesn’t just belong to this age, but belongs to all ages. We will still have Christ, and he is after all, the only part of Christmas that we ever needed in the first place.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.
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