Entertainment Happenings Lifestyle

The Boar’s Head Festival is Back 

Is it real? We may never know. The actual Boar’s Head in the production at the festival, is a mystery the church would like to hold onto. Shana Sureck Photography (Courtesy photo)

Asylum Hill Congregational Church’s spectacular production returns Jan. 7-8.

Costumes for the magnificent production of the Boar’s Head & Yule Log Festival at Asylum Hill Congregational Church are all made by members of the church. Shana Sureck Photography. (Courtesy photo)

By Tracey Weiss

The joyous tradition of the Boar’s Head & Yule Log Festival is back, after a two-year hiatus due to COVID, and everyone involved in the production at Asylum Hill Congregational Church on Jan. 7-8 could not be more excited.

“We hope people will want to come to the show – some for the first time and some for the 50th,” said Jack Pott, director of music and art for the church.

This will be the 56th year of the church’s telling of the story of Epiphany, through costumed performers, live animals, puppets, and more. Over the years, the church’s production has garnered a reputation for its spectacular show, so much so that author Caryn B. Davis dedicated five pages of photographs and copy to the tradition in 2017’s A Connecticut Christmas, a coffee table book that celebrates the time-honored traditions of the communities in the state.

“The show is always the same story but we always try to add something different,” said Jim Grigsby, who co-chairs the production with his wife, Louise Fazio. “The costuming is spectacular. All of the costumes are made by the people in the church. We hire a 15-piece brass orchestra. And have a dance troop mostly made up of people from the church.

“We have the animals,” Grigsby added. They come from Commerford Farms in Goshen, Whispering Horse Therapeutic Riding Center in East Longmeadow, MA, and LTD Animals in Stonington for the geese and chickens.

Live animals, like this camel, are a large part of the production’s allure, and they come from Commerford Farms in Goshen, Whispering Horse Therapeutic Riding Center in East Longmeadow, MA, and LTD Animals in Stonington. Shana Sureck Photography (Courtesy photo)

“Everybody loves the live animals,” Grigsby said. “My wife and I rearranged the story a bit so some of the animals would come out during the first part of the show,” which is a relatively new change to the production.

Another highlight is the angel puppet, made by puppet-maker extraordinaire Anne Cubberly. At 14 feet long, “it’s lifelike the way it moves,” according to Grigsby. “It travels horizontally over people in the audience. It takes four puppeteers to operate it.”

A tale of two halves

Pott said the tradition is associated with Boar’s Head festivals all over the country.

He calls the 90-minute show “a tale of two halves.” Pott is quite familiar with the church’s show and its universal tradition. Not only is he celebrating 20 years as director of the church’s music and art programming, but he was a member of the church for years and was always involved in the production of the Boar’s Head festival.

The Boar’s Head Festival, now in its 56th year, is one of the beloved traditions of the Asylum Hill Congregational Church. Shana Sureck Photography. (Courtesy photo)

In the first half of the show, he said, “We mimic the secular street festival of 15th century lords and ladies.”

“The story goes that a student carrying a backpack kills an evil boar trying to attack him,” Grigsby said. “The student is knighted by the king,” and the celebration ensues, with a feast that includes the serving of the boar’s head – a symbol of Christ triumphing over evil – dancing, and more festivities.

The second half of the story is a live retelling of the Christmas story,” Pott said. “It’s more traditional, with Christmas music. It’s quite the spectacle.”

“It culminates in a majestic magical musical,” Grigsby added, “with everyone paying homage to Christ the child in the end.”

The Epiphany is part of the celebration of the Boar’s Head & Yule Log Festival at Asylum Hill Congregational Church, happening on Jan. 7-8. Courtesy photo

Entertaining and inspiring

The Boar’s Head & Yule Log Festival “is sort of like a souped-up Christmas pageant meets Radio City Music Hall,” Pott added. “Not only is it entertaining, but it’s inspirational. It always conveys the message of love. It’s one of the highlights of our year. It’s one of the only things, other than the Sunday services, that brings us all together. It’s one of the beloved traditions of the church.”

It’s also a lot of work.

Work starts in the summer to get the show ready. There are 10 committees operating under the umbrella run by Grigsby, Fazio, and Pott to make sure the show goes on.

“There are tickets, costumes, managing, ushers, food, and a cast of 100 or more,” Grigsby said.

Even though hundreds of church members participate in the production, “We spend the weekend together as a family,” Grigsby said. “We have third generation church members doing the show now. It’s great for us to be together. It’s a great experience.”

According to its website, ahcc.org, Asylum Hill Congregational Church is “an active, energetic urban church with roughly 1,200 members that is open to and affirming of all God’s people. We strive to make our services, events, programs, and facilities available to all as part of our commitment to inclusivity. AHCC is a member of the United Church of Christ.”

This year, the production, which almost always has sold out in the past, will be held for four performances instead of five.

“We would do performances for 4,000 people over the weekend. People come from all over the state,” Grigsby said. “Because we were dark for two years, we’re starting off this year with four shows now (two on Saturday and two on Sunday), so we will have 2,500 people here.”

Anyone who can’t make it to the live show can watch from home via livestream during the Saturday evening show. Shana Sureck Photography. Courtesy photo

Don’t miss the pre-show

Show-goers should plan to be at the performance 30 minutes before the actual production, Grigsby said. Every year, the pre-show includes performances by a magician, jesters, a stilt-walker, a mime, live music, and more, to reflect the fun entertainment provided by the Lord Mayor of London, where these festivities originated in the late 15th century.

Anyone who can’t make it to the live show can watch from home via livestream. “We will be livestreaming the Saturday night show for people who can’t make it,” Pott said. “We’re selling livestream tickets and hoping it opens up a wider audience for us. We have a great livestream system and lots of cameras.”

The early show on Sunday will have an ASL interpreter.

For tickets, go to ahcc.org or call 860-278-0785.

Anne Cubberly’s 14-foot-long angel puppet is part of the Boar’s Hear production at Asylum Hill Congregational Church. The puppet takes four puppeteers to maneuver it through the crowd. Shana Sureck Photography (Courtesy photo)

The other holidays

Did you know there are many other holidays, besides Christmas, Hanukah, and Kwanzaa, that are celebrated in the winter season?

Here are just a few:

Tết (Jan. 22, 2023): The word is short for Tết Nguyên Đán, Spring Festival, Lunar New Year, or Vietnamese Lunar New Year is one of the most important celebrations in Vietnamese culture. The colloquial term “Tết” is a shortened form of Tết Nguyên Đán, with Old Vietnamese origins meaning “Festival of the First Morning of the First Day”. Tết celebrates the arrival of spring based on the Vietnamese calendar, which usually has the date on January or February in the Gregorian calendar. (Wikipedia)

Las Posadas (Dec. 16-24, 2022): With its origins in Spain, Las Posadas is a nine-day celebration that is now primarily celebrated in Mexico, Guatemala, and parts of the Southwestern United States. The roots of this holiday are in Catholicism, but several different branches of Christian Latinos follow the tradition. During the celebration, a procession moves from house to house with a candle inside a paper lampshade, stopping at each home to sign and pray. Eventually, the procession ends at a home or church, and the celebration continues with caroling, feasting, and piñata breaking. (Unitedplanet.org)

Chinese New Year (Jan. 22, 2023): Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, is the most important festival in China and a major event in some other East Asian countries. Chinese New Year is the festival that celebrates the beginning of a new year on the traditional lunisolar Chinese calendar. It was traditionally a time to honor deities as well as ancestors, and it has also become a time to feast and to visit family members. (Chinahighlights.com)

Lohri (Jan. 13, 2023): The Lohri festival, held each year on Jan. 13, is celebrated in Northern India and marks the end of the winter when the sun changes its course. Ceremonies include building large bonfires and tossing candies and sesame seeds into them while singing and dancing until the fire goes out, and children go door to door singing the praises of Dulha Bhatti, the Punjabi version of Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. (Stacker.com)

St. Lucia’s Day (Dec. 13. 2022): Celebrated in Sweden, Norway, and Swedish-speaking parts of Finland, St. Lucia’s Day takes place on Dec. 13, in honor of St. Lucia, an early Christian martyr who was killed by the Romans in 304 A.D. The festival includes the selection of a girl to represent St. Lucia, who then walks at the head of a procession through the town, singing traditional songs. The holiday is also celebrated in parts of Italy, where St. Lucia is considered the patron saint of Syracuse in Sicily. (Stacker.com)

Omisoka (Dec. 31, 2022):Omisoka is the Japanese New Year, and like the Western version of New Year’s, is celebrated on Dec. 31. It is considered one of the most important holidays in Japanese culture, second only to Jan. 1, known as Shogatsu or Japanese New Year’s Day. Celebrating the close of the old year and ushering in the new one, Japanese people host Bonenkai parties, intended to help forget about the past year, write cards to friends and family, and send gifts. Many families make rice cakes as part of the celebration, and homes are decorated with a sacred Shinto straw rope. (Stacker.com)

Mardi Gras (Feb. 21, 2023): Mardi Gras, otherwise known as Carnival, kicks off every year on Jan. 6, marking the end of the 12 Days of Christmas and the start of several weeks of parties, parades, fireworks, music, and general entertainment. The merriment continues until Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. In the U.S., the biggest celebration takes place in the city of New Orleans, where marching bands take over the streets, and masquerade balls take place throughout the districts. Carnival is also observed in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Venice, Italy, among other places. (Stacker.com)

Boxing Day (Dec. 26, 2022): Celebrated primarily in the U.K. and other European countries, Boxing Day takes place on Dec. 26. Traditionally a day off for servants and the day when their employers would give them a “Christmas box” or monetary gift, modern Boxing Day customs include sporting events such as full programs of top-tier international football leagues, shopping, and a holiday from work. In some countries, Boxing Day is celebrated as Saint Stephen’s Day, a religious holiday honoring the first Christian martyr. (Stacker.com)

Day of Tradition (Nov. 10, 2022): Day of Tradition, or Día de la Tradición, is an Argentinian holiday that takes place on Nov. 10. It celebrates the gaucho culture and commemorates poet Jose Hernandez, a journalist and politician who was most well known for his opus, “Martin Fierro,” a poem that emphasizes the role of gauchos in Argentina’s history. Events include barbecues, concerts, music, horsemanship shows, and cultural events, culminating in a large gaucho parade held on the Sunday nearest to Nov. 10. (Stacker.com)

Bon Om Touk (Nov. 7-9, 2022): The Cambodian Water Festival, or Bon Om Touk, is celebrated in November, during the full moon of the Buddhist month of Kreuk. It marks the yearly reverse of the flow between the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River. resource for Cambodia, providing fish and rich silt deposits to fertilize crops. As the rainy season ends and the lake level goes down, parades, boat races, and fireworks honor the event for three days, all meant to ensure a bountiful year ahead. (Stacker.com)

Día de Candelaria (Feb. 2, 2023): Taking place on Feb. 2, Día de Candelaria, also known as the Presentation of the Lord or Candlemas, is widely celebrated by various Christian denominations in countries such as Mexico, Spain, and France. The holiday is thought to have originated in ancient times during the spring equinox, eventually evolving into a religious event based on biblical scriptures and representing the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple. Traditions include taking figures of the Christ child to the church for blessings, as well as bringing candles to blessed and used later in the home. (Stacker.com)

Waitangi Day (Feb. 6, 2023): Waitangi Day is the national day of New Zealand, celebrated on Feb. 6 and commemorating the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document. Annual events include Māori cultural performances, live music, and traditional foods, as well as the yearly launching of the world’s largest Māori ceremonial war canoe, which is carried out and blessed by members of the local tribe. (Stacker.com)

A version of this article previously appeared in the December 2022 issue of West Hartford LIFE.

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