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The whole hog

Plymouth Church’s Boar’s Head Festival turns 35

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2009-12-19


Medieval pageantry, Christmas carols galore, a cast of 157…

And Beefeaters. Lots of Beefeaters.

Those iconic guardsmen in their eye-catching red uniforms are probably the first images that come to mind when you think of Plymouth Congregational Church’s annual Boar’s Head Festival, one of the most popular holiday events in Fort Wayne.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Plymouth’s Boar’s Head Festival, and artistic director Jim Schmidt estimates he’s helmed the event — along with musical director Robert Nance — some 15 times. “The people who created it left after the 12th year, and then I took over,” says Schmidt, who has a background in theater and, among other activities in Fort Wayne’s dramatic community, helped found East Allen County Schools Centerstage summer theater program. “I’ve alternated with some other directors here and there. I’ve done close to 15 of the last 23 years.”

There are several Boar’s Head Festivals that take place throughout the United States, but it’s a Christmas tradition that dates back… well quite a ways. Schmidt explains that it was a medieval festival that was celebrated at Queen’s College in Oxford, England back in the 1340s, and which, in turn, was based on an even older tradition. Once upon a time, the boar was the nastiest, ugliest, most feared creature crashing its way through the English countryside. It came to symbolize evil, so traditionally, hunters would kill the boar and present its head to their feudal lord as part of a feast. “The head was presented as a sign that evil had been vanquished and goodness reigned,” Schmidt says. “It eventually becomes part of a religious tradition celebrated around Christmas time, with the symbolism that and Jesus was born into the world, and his goodness would overcome the darkness.”

The tradition was eventually adapted by the Episcopalian Church, and made its way to colonial America. Schmidt puts its modern incarnation in the 1930s. “There were a couple churches, one in Cincinnati, one in Ann Arbor, that revived it around then,” he says. “In the early 70s, members of our church became interested in perhaps bringing it to Fort Wayne, so they visited both Cincinnati and Ann Arbor, and eventually created our own Boar’s Head Festival.”

“They arranged the music, made all the original costumes and put the basic ideas in place.”

And the basics of Plymouth’s Boar’s Head Festival haven’t changed all that much in the last 35 years. “Basically, being a festival, it’s pretty well set as far as what’s going to happen,” says Schmidt. “Donnie Cooper, our costumer for the last 15 years, has re-furbished all the original costumes, but basically the music is the same, and the staging is the same. We’ve chosen to keep it in the church, even though the opportunity to move it some place larger is feasible, we think it’s important to keep it in our sanctuary.”

Schmidt explains that there are two parts to the festival. The first part is secular, where the boar’s head is presented to the lord of the manor. This is the part that features all the medieval pageantry — the lords and ladies, the jester, the medieval players, the servants and peasants and, of course, the Beefeaters.

“And from there it goes into the sacred story of the birth of Jesus and the re-telling of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem,” Schmidt adds. “In the end, everyone returns to the manger, both the wise men and the peasant and the lord and jester and everyone to make the connection for all of us.”

The music in the Plymouth’s Boar’s Head Festival was arranged by the church’s original music director Vincent Slater. “There are a variety of pieces, some you would recognize, some that you wouldn’t,” Schmidt says. “Jim Klauser plays the Herald; he has been involved for 35 years, and he sings what’s called the ‘Boar’s Head Carol.’ But there’s also ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and ‘I Saw Three Ships’… ‘Deck the Halls’ is in the festival. Then there are some not-so-familiar pieces in the sacred part, called ‘The Shepard’s Carol’ and ‘Hail to the Lord’s Anointed.’ So there are some recognizable carols, but many are traditional to the festival itself.”

Plymouth chooses to hold its Boar’s Head Festival in the week after Christmas, a time when the shopping is done, the big meals are finished, the pace is a little less frantic… in short, a time that’s maybe more conducive to reflecting on the true spirit of Christmas.

Tickets to the Boar’s Head Festival are free — the festival is supported by patrons and whatever is collected by the freewill offering — but you do need a ticket to get in, and they’re usually snapped up pretty quickly. Schmidt says he’s still amazed at the popularity of the event. “We always do a little bit of an introduction at the beginning and ask how many people are seeing it for the first time, and more than 50% of the audience will raise their hands.”

“After 35 years, you’d think you would have tapped that support,” he laughs. “But people keep bringing other people back. People come far and wide to see the festival, which we’re very pleased about.”

The Boar’s Head Festival
Plymouth Congregational Church
501 West Berry
December 27 (Sunday); 28 (Monday); 29 (Tuesday) at 5:30 and 8 PM each evening
Tickets are FREE and available now. Limited seating. Call (260) 423-9424.

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