Carrying tradition

Boar’s Head Festival marks 50th anniversary

By Peter H. Milliken


Every year, the Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival gives participants a total immersion into the rich traditions of early Christianity and of the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

Featuring Medieval and Renaissance music and traditional Christmas and Epiphany hymns, Sunday’s performances marked the 50th anniversary of the festival at St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Early in the service, the Brier Hill Pipes and Drums played and marched into the church with the beefeaters, who wore the famous Tower of London ceremonial guards’ attire.

After the lights dimmed inside the packed 110-year-old Norman Gothic church, a tiny sprite skipped 100 yards from the front door to the high altar, jingling bells on her slippers and carrying a lighted candle symbolizing “the light of the world.”

A colorful procession of parishioners and others wearing elaborate and historically authentic costumes followed, featuring pipers, drummers, beefeaters, waits, lords and ladies, King Wenceslas, woodmen, shepherds and the Three Wise Men.

New to the procession this year was St. Nicholas, appearing as Bishop Nicholas. Augmenting the church choir this year was the Salem Youth Chorus.

The two major symbols in the procession were the boar’s head, representing the triumph of Christ over evil, and the Yule log, representing the warmth of family and the rekindling of love.

“We cannot really continue this celebration without acknowledging the tragic events that took place yesterday in Arizona. I ask that each of you keep the victims and the families of those victims in your prayers,” said the Rev. Dr. Bradley W. Pace, church rector.

“It is precisely because there are these dark times that we need to celebrate light in the world. As blessed St. John said, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it,” said the Rev. Dr. Pace, a first-time festival participant.

More than 150 people marched in the procession, sang in the choir or played in the brass ensemble for the festival, which takes place every second Sunday in January in conjunction with the observance of the Epiphany.

“It’s a massive team effort,” said Sarah Cart of Poland, a St. John’s parishioner who ended her 16 years as festival director Sunday. “It’s a miracle. You leave here believing in miracles,” she said of the festival and its ability to draw capacity crowds year after year.

“It reminds us of the essence of our Christian faith, to go and spread the light regardless of what our differences may be,” Cart observed.

As organ music reverberated through the limestone interior of the church, about 400 people filled the pews for each of two performances in the filtered light beneath the church’s elaborate and colorful stained-glass windows.

Leslie Chain of Austintown, a soprano in the church choir, said she believes the music is the main attraction, specifically, she said, “how beautifully it’s written and how beautifully we aim to perform it.” For those who attend the festival, Chain said: “It’s something you’ll never forget.”

In Sunday’s liturgical drama, trombonist James Hummer, the only performer who has participated in the festival every year since its inception, marked his retirement from the cast.

The festival, which began here in 1961 under the leadership of the Rev. James Kirkhoffer and Dr. Ronald Gould, was patterned after similar ones at Christ Church in Cincinnati and Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland.

Dr. Gould, who was St. John’s organist and choirmaster for more than four decades and remains an active St. John’s parishioner, was a guest conductor for Sunday’s event.

In addition to its regulars, who participate year after year as cast or audience members, the festival draws newcomers.

Elizabeth Santiago of Austintown was making her first visit to the landmark Wick Avenue church. “It’s gorgeous. Oh my God, it’s absolutely beautiful. ... It’s breathtaking,” she said as she got her first glimpse of the sanctuary.

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