O and A and A and O

I might be making this up but I think a stuffed boar’s head might be linked to the pagan feast of Michaelmas.
– a Mudcat contributor

The idea that traditional songs encode ‘pagan’ meanings crops up from time to time – was Polly Vaughan a shape-shifter? was Brown Adam another name for Wayland, the smith of the gods? As far as I’m concerned these are questions expecting the answer No; in fact, I think speculations like these only become plausible or interesting if you turn on your mental dry ice machine, pump up the mists of Avalon and repeat after me: ooh, songs from the old days, the strange mysterious old days… But if people want to punt these ideas around it’s no skin off my nose – it could get people thinking about where the songs actually do come from, and they might happen on something interesting.

What does bother me, though, is when people take this wifty-wafty ooh maybe it’s pagan approach to traditional carols. Two carols which have been particularly encumbered with speculative paganism are the Boar’s Head Carol and the Holly and the Ivy.

The Boar’s Head Carol derives from an attestably pre-modern (medieval) ceremony involving the ceremonial entrance of a boar’s head, borne in to an Oxford college feast and followed (presumably) by the more edible parts of the animal (The boar’s head in hand bear I, bedecked in bay and rosemary…). Now, it seems to me that if you’ve got a song which is partly written in Latin, and which goes back (with some variations) to before the Tudors, you’ve got something pretty wonderful – certainly wonderful enough not to need embroidery. But then the mists of Avalon roll in, and we get statements like this (per Wikipedia)

initiated in all probability on the Isle of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, although our knowledge of it comes substantially from medieval times….[In ancient Norse tradition] sacrifice carried the intent of imploring Freyr to show favor to the new year. The boar’s head with apple in mouth was carried into the banquet hall on a gold or silver dish to the sounds of trumpets and the songs of minstrels.

Sadly, I haven’t got access to Folklore 85(3) (Autumn 1974), so I can’t judge how accurately this heavily-edited quotation represents the intention of the author (American folklorist John Spears – not to be confused with English medievalist John Speirs, or for that matter John Spiers). But it certainly sounds as if Spears was claiming to describe the presentation of the boar’s head as a Norse ceremony. To which suggestion (implicit or otherwise) I reply with this, from the 1958 work Christmas and its Customs by Christina Hole:

[The boar’s head] was eaten during the Scandinavian Yule in honor of the Sun-Boar. The heroes of Valhalla were believed to feast continually on boar’s flesh, and the animal itself was sacred to Celt and Norseman alike. At the great medieval Christmas banquets the head was garlanded with rosemary and bay, and an orange or an apple was thrust between its teeth. It was brought in with ceremony to the sound of trumpets, slowly borne in upon a gold or silver dish by the chief cook, and accompanied by a procession of minstrels and servants.

Emphasis added. If – as the textual correspondence suggests – Spears was basing his statement on the evidence of Christina Hole, the evidence wasn’t there. Spears, like Hole before him, took the evidence of a medieval – Christian – ritual and simply speculated that it was based on a pagan forerunner, despite the obvious difficulty this theory faces in terms of dates. Christianity came to Britain in the 6th century AD – if the boar’s head ritual had derived from Anglo-Saxon religion, it would need to have survived for the best part of a thousand years before the first record we now have of it. As I commented at A Folk Song A Day, “it seems far more likely that the point of processing with a boar’s head is to demonstrate that (a) you’ve killed a large meaty animal and (b) you’re about to eat it”. And, I would add, (c) you want to honour this significant feast with an only partly jokey ritual setting – that is, a Christian ritual setting.

On the ‘pagan’ reading of the Holly and the Ivy, I can’t do better than quote AFSAD:

There are several different things happening here at once, involving both ancient pagan symbols and Roman festivities being consumed by Christmas. Holly and ivy are two evergreen plants symbolic to ancient winter ritual. Holly with its red berries was also associated with Saturn and more importantly the feast of Saturnalia that Christmas eventually usurped across the Roman Empire. Even so, Holly and ivy wreaths (and mistletoe) remained part of the decorative fabric of Christmas, and still do, despite resistance from the church. The song then uses the holly motif to make allusions through the verses to the purity, blood and crown of thorns of Christ. It’s also curious, however, that apart from appearing in the title, none of ivy’s attributes are described in the same way as the holly. This adds a further strand with the association of the prickly holly with the masculine and the softer ivy with the feminine. It’s the inevitable battle of the sexes and refers back to much older songs.

Let’s let some light in. The Holly and the Ivy was first documented in 1861, with an editorial note saying that it had first been printed “a century and a half since”; even if we believe this (and there’s no particular reason why we should), it only gets us back to the England of the early 18th century, before Dr Johnson but after Dryden. Why we should suppose that the words of an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century song had something to do with the feast of Saturnalia, I can’t imagine. It’s certainly true that the holly and ivy motif was used in “much older songs”, specifically “The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly“, which goes right back to the sixteenth century. But the sixteenth century is still an awful long time after anyone had stopped celebrating Saturnalia.

What is going on in the song is a methodical, almost catechistic exposition of aspects of Christian faith: the white blossom reminds us of salvation; the red blood, of Jesus’s redemptive sacrifice; the bitter bark, of Jesus’s suffering on the Cross; the sharp thorn, of Mary’s pain in childbirth, and the joy of Jesus’s birth on Christmas day in the morn. These things would have been immediately, vitally interesting to an eighteenth-century congregation – who wouldn’t have given a second thought to the masculinity of the holly or its one-time association with Saturnalia.

It seems to me that the ooh, pagan approach to traditional carols does violence to the tradition, operating a double disinheritance. Firstly, the religious content – the Christian religious content – of the old carols passes us by; even present-day believers aren’t believers in the same sense as they would have been in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, when our entire social world would have operated on the assumption of membership of the Christian church. Hearing the Holly and the Ivy and finding significance in the holly is almost exactly like seeing a finger pointing at the moon and looking at the finger. And secondly, if we find religion where it isn’t (and ignore it when it is there), we also find symbolism where it isn’t – and for very similar reasons. Why would anyone write about holly and ivy, or about a boar’s head? For people like me – writing on a full stomach, in a warm and well-lit room – the answer isn’t immediately obvious. But it should be: these were Christmas carols, and as such they were winter songs. And winter was a time of darkness, a time of cold, a time when nothing grew – except a few strange survivors like the holly and the ivy – and a time when food was short.

The old carols are amazing songs: they’re songs of celebration, in the teeth of immense hardship, borne up by fellowship and firelight but also by the certainties of a shared and unquestioned Christian faith. It’s not easy for us to identify with that world and its people now – dreaming of New Age pagans is much easier. But it’s that world and those people who gave us the songs; I think we owe it to them to give it a try.

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