The Boar’s Head Festival at Asylum Hill Congregational Church Metcalf, Twichell and Twain
By Laurencia Ciprus/Photos by Jeffery S. Lilly and Boar’s Head Festival
With a full immersion into majesty, merriment and sensory splendor, the 49th Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival at Hartford’s Asylum Hill Congregational Church celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany, January 8-10, 2016. The theatrical procession of the Three Kings, Lords and Ladies; Chinese, Spanish and Indian Court Visitors, mimes and jugglers; exotic creatures and exalted music collectively mark the manifestation of Christ in Jesus within the meticulously restored 150-year old gothic sanctuary. The presentation of the Boar’s Head – the most feared predator roaming ancient primeval forests for thousands of years – evolved into a Christmas metaphor for the Christ Child’s conquest over sin. The authentic pageantry dates back over 600 years to 1340, with the first recorded iteration at Queen’s College in Oxford, England. Legend holds that a young student was confronted by a massive and charging boar while ambling through the forest en route to Christmas Mass, then vanquished it with the weighty book of Aristotle he was reading. The creature later became the centerpiece for the Refectory’s holiday feast. The Boar’s Head Festival rapidly sells out 5,000 tickets to its five performances, elongating Hartford’s holiday season into the New Year and providing a rejuvenating respite of delight and suspended disbelief during the best and worst of times over the past five decades.
It is a most apt location to celebrate Epiphany. AHCC’s sustained success is attributable to 150 years of ongoing epiphanies – epiphanies about progressive causes, constantly expanding community initiatives, insights and a benevolence which has fortified the church as a gathering place for worship, hope and celebration to a uniquely diverse and growing congregation since 1864. As the Civil War captured a wounded and divided nation in tight clutch, AHCC was born out of Marie Metcalf’s personal epiphany. Metcalf initially envisioned a church school as a safe haven for children and families, and then quickly organized a handful of inspired spirits into a fledgling church by January of 1865. The first congregants of Asylum Hill Congregational Church were guided by the church’s first pastor, Civil War veteran and inspired visionary, Reverend Joseph Hopkins Twichell. Perhaps divinely pre-destined as a landscape for healing, the neighborhood housing the church was first known as “Lord’s Hill” and later became “Asylum Hill” when the Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons was established there in 1807. Under the inspired direction of Reverend Twichell, the church’s burgeoning congregation became a reliable safe haven for the oppressed of Connecticut’s Capitol City.
Profoundly affected by his tour as a Civil War Chaplain, Twichell was considered by many as a “Progressive Conservative”, and as a champion for the rights of the poor, was supported by equally progressive neighbors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Samuel Clemens – aka Mark Twain. Twain – although a self-proclaimed Atheist – called AHCC “The Church of the Holy Speculators” and was so like-minded with the humanitarian passion of Twichell that he not only rented the church pew which still bears his brass nameplate, but also became an unlikely best friend to The Reverend. The duo would often continue their congenial and comical discussions on long walks through the rural landscape and either end up at the summit of Talcott Mountain to reflect in the vistas of the river valley or, along the paths of Nook Farm near the Twain homestead. During his 47-years on the pulpit, a highly progressive Twichell held the doors to his church wide open to any and every segment of Hartford. He was an outspoken challenger to the Chinese Opposition Act and championed the advancement of African American History; rallied against anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic sentiment and facilitated Russian Jews in establishing their own place of worship on Front Street. There was every segment of the capitol city’s populace welcomed at his pulpit.
The Boar’s Head Festival at Asylum Hill Congregational Church is a direct reflection of this sense of unity, passion and compassion with an overarching theme of community radiating from its heart center. The experience is always refreshing with surprises and has miraculously been a self-sustaining event exclusively through ticket sales. Minister of Music and Arts Steve Mitchell and his staff add an enriched texture to Boar’s Head each year through inspirational scores, pitch perfect choral arrangements and a myriad of musical talent. Bagpipers from Manchester Pipes participate annually, along with Scottish dancers from The Sterling School of Scottish Dancing. Along with the regular participants, there is also an expansive initiative toward community outreach in an effort to weave local creatives into the tapestry in direct reflection of Reverend Twichell’s early examples of community inclusion. Jack Pott, Assistant to Minister of Music and Art interjected that, ”… the challenge each year is where to add and expand.” In recent years, talents such as dance troop Spectrum in Motion Dance Theatre Ensemble led by Director Olivia Davis, and Puppeteer Anne Cubberley’s creation of an 18 foot soaring handcrafted angel have contributed enhanced artistry.
But these are the highlights. The armature to this architecture requires over 250 volunteers who assemble annually, extend their support to present this lavish display, with the majority involved for years. Children begin as cherubs; graduate to pages, cookie or flower girls; then later to woodsmen, shepherds, Lords and Ladies. It is a common story at AHCC. Everyone gets involved, including The Reverend Matthew Laney who has played a monk in past performances. Festival Chair, Tom Donahue, who joined the AHCC family in 1986, began by painting scenery and then evolved into his leadership role eight years ago. The Festival is a constantly expanding entity with hundreds of volunteers behind the scenes attending to the most intricate details to ensure a seamless performance.
The costume committee Chaired by Marcie Sener, attends to over 200 theatrical quality ensembles in intricate detail created exclusively by parishioners and archived within the church. Each year 150-200 garments are utilized and refitted with a small team of three overseeing the quantum undertaking. It is in sharp contrast to the first performance in 1968, when Choir Director Dick Einsel made do with recycled draperies and bathrobes as costumes and his wife Grace prepared the glazed boar’s head and mince pie. Today, well-choreographed food committees contribute 150 gallons of punch and scores of Christmas cookies supplied by talented congregants.
Farm and exotic birds and animals prove a theatrical highlight to the event, requiring their own logistics and pre-emptive maintenance with rubber runners laid down in the sanctuary and bales of hay at the ready. There is always a camel for chance photo ops, plus a donkey and sheep within the mix. The animals have proven the source of scores anecdotes over the years. Pairs of geese are kept together until the very last minute, and quickly reunited to limit their honking at separation. The goats used to enjoy beatific sleepovers at the church during the performance weekend, although known to escape during the night to make their own Christmas pilgrimage through the sanctuary. This all in good-natured fun and the congenial creatures are contented performers under the expert care and direction of Charlotte Bacon and C.W. Commerford & Sons.
The entire Boar’s Head Festival comes together with surprising speed. Beginning with sign-up in September, time compresses for the committees. Choir and musicians have short time to perfect their new arrangements, which are presented in early December. Costumes are constantly re-fitted and adjusted to every detail. The sets and props are brought out of on-site storage and assembled and refined. It is a labor of love to the church, the congregation and with only one musical rehearsal and one cast rehearsal the level of dedication and commitment to exacting perfection radiates in each flawless performance. With the weather as the only detail left up to chance, even the natural elements are accounted for: plows are in place and walkways scrupulously cleared and salted. Thus far, cold clear weather – which is the preferred backdrop, as the heat in the sanctuary cannot adequately be turned down – has graced the event in answer to collective prayer.
The 2017 season of The Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival will mark the 50th year of the event at Asylum Hill Congregational Church. This is another church milestone and preparations are already underway to ensure a joyful commemoration. There are rumblings about the possibilities of staging historic Boar’s Head Feasts for the event and further speculations about what the Staff and Committees will offer up for delights. Jack Potts has his own speculations about the next direction for the festival and points up to the heavens for inspiration. Further epiphanies will likely provide the heavenly guideposts, as Asylum Hill Congregational Church continues to expand, prosper and radiate under the spirit of God.
The Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival at Asylum Hill Congregational Church runs January 8th, 9th and 10th. Tickets are $15 to $22 and can be purchased by calling 860-278-0785. Visit ahcc.org for further details.