Treasure of the month - December 2008
Bringing in the Boar's Head
This festive illustration is from the Christmas Supplement to the Illustrated London News, 1855.
First published in May 1842 by Herbert Ingram, the Illustrated London News was a pictorial magazine featuring news items and woodcut images. It was the world's first ever illustrated weekly newspaper, and the first periodical to make extensive use of woodcuts and engravings and, later, photographs.
Historians view the publication as a rich resource for the study of social history during the Victorian era in particular, although it was still being published on a quarterly basis as recently as the 1980s. It was an instant hit when first published, and its sales grew rapidly over the years. In 1855 the paper published its first colour supplement in the Christmas edition, containing an array of traditional festive images.
As for the custom of serving up a boar's head at Christmas, it has a long and revered history. The Boar's Head Carol was first published in 1521 by Wynken de Worde in Christmasse Carolles although the tradition was already hundreds of years old by that time, having its origins in the pagan customs of Germanic and Anglo Saxon peoples, as well as the ancient Scandinavian festival of Yule.
The Boar's Head Carol is still sung each year on Christmas Day at Queen's College, Oxford, when a boar's head is borne into the hall with an apple in its mouth, decorated by greenery and on a large platter, while the carol is sung:
The boar's head in hand bear I,
Bedecked with bays and rosemary.
I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio (so many as are in the feast).
The boar's head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which, thus bedecked with a gay garland,
Let us servire cantico. (let us serve with a song).
Illustrated London News, Christmas Supplement (1855).