Boar’s head & wassail

It would be now the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and this evening coming up our Twelfth Night, and Eve of the Epiphany: which is to say, twelve drummers drumming. I don’t know about you, gentle reader, but in my carefully considered view, I think we should bring on the wassail.

The traditions associated with this conclusion of the first round of Christmas celebrations are of bewildering variety, across old Europe and, too, old colonial America (North and South). But I had a grandmother who contrived to be born in Devonshire (Mabel Henrietta Warren, née Jevon, of beloved memory, 1898–1969), who made clear to me the foundation of wassail upon good cider — mulled, if you will. Cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, anise, pomegranate and some part of a vanilla pod: these are all judgement calls. Clementines come bobbing up to mind. Honey; or better, add it in the form of mead.

Over this side of the Atlantic Sea, it is very hard to find good cider. We need to begin making it ourselves. Fresh apple juice is all very nice — but it is not cider, whatever the pretence of the label. What comes from the licker store is invariably carbonated: a kind of alcoholic soft drink, not meant for Christians. The old ciders of Normandy and the West Country of England were flat beverages: more an apple wine. Ditto for perry (made from pears); and much followed from the many varieties of apples and other fruit, including their respective brandies. As ever, modernity has imposed a cruel compression, all production geared to the ignorant masses and reptilian economies of scale. Orchard by orchard, Christendom must be restored.

Indeed, the Twelfth Day of Christmas was associated, at least in my grandmother’s mind, with visitation of those orchards. The trees must be blest, and God’s bounty renewed through prayer. Bread dredged in cider was spread on the branches for the spirits of the woodland, i.e. the birds to carry away. Dancing and carolling were indicated.

The tradition of the boar’s head, too, is mysteriously involved. The wild boar was once a terror of the northern woods — though not the apex predator, being itself hunted by packs of grey wolves. But one on one it was Death incarnate. The swine could outrun a horse, swivel on a dewclaw, and slice you up with tusks like knives. Razor-sharp teeth, and razor-sharp mind (far smarter than a bear); six-hundredweight of unpredictable menace. Delicious, if you managed to stick it before it stuck you: so much that in England they ate them down to the last one. For Englishmen are even smarter than pigs, most days.

If memory serves, the feast of the boar’s head begins, as so much in our Western intellectual tradition, with Aristotle. A scholar was walking through the woods, on his way to Mass, reading his Prior and Posterior Analytics. He was confronted by this wild snorting boar, in a pique from some unknown cause, and soon charging. The clever schoolman thrust his book into the creature’s maw. Unequal to such a volume of logic, the boar choked on it. Later its head was presented in the refectory, “decked with bays and rosemary” — though whether with an apple in its mouth, I cannot say. One also wants to know if the book was repairable. (There is a fine macaronic carol in honour of the beast, from this culinary angle.)

Do not grieve, gentle reader. The first twelve days may be nearing their end, but truly, there are Forty Days of Christmas, which, before the Bugniniman got at it,  extended to Candlemas on February 2nd (unless, I suppose, preceded by Septuagesima). … But thanks to the Summorum Pontificum of Good Pope Benedict, old “Buggers” will eventually be forgiven and forgotten.

In the meantime, Saint Telesphorus (pope and martyr, AD 136) … pray for us.