OLEAN — About 100 hungry church and community members gathered to celebrate what is likely the oldest and strangest of holiday traditions — when a roasted pig is carried into, and out of, the sanctuary at Immanuel Lutheran Church.
“We were looking for something that the rest of the community didn’t have,” said Pastor Derek Cheek of Saturday’s event.
“We’re just regular people,” he continued, and the congregation wanted an event that would make that point to the community.
They chose the Boar’s Head Feast— a unique church event that involves beer.
“Beer was also always associated with this feast representing the Water of Life and Joy,” Cheek said, which explained the presence of Four Mile Brewing Company, who provided two craft beers on draft at the dinner. “We want to show we’re not a rule-bound community,” said the pastor, wearing a kilt.
Legend has it that the Boar’s Head Feast began in 1340, when a student at Queen’s College, in Oxford, England, was attacked by a boar, which at the time was considered a dangerous menace. The student was said to have killed it by shoving a book by Aristotle down its throat.
Cheek explained that the boar came to signify the devil.
Later in 1340, for the holiday festival, pork was served in honor of Jesus’s birth. The feast soon came to celebrate Christ’s defeat over the devil, an epiphany of sorts, much like the student defeated the boar.
A short service began the celebration, and after the Liturgy of the Boar’s Head in the sanctuary of the church, it was time for the Procession of the Boar.
Originally, only the head of the boar was presented to those at the feast, hence the name Boar’s Head Feast. Back then boar could weight hundreds of pounds and simply couldn’t be carried, even by several men. The roasted boar would be butchered and only the (often decorated)
head was presented.
Since this pig only weighed 110 pounds, it was carried in its entirety on a slab by four men to the accompaniment of the “Boar’s Head Carol.” That’s the entire pig ─ covered in pineapple slices and with eyeballs replaced by maraschino cherries that glistened red in the candlelight of the sanctuary.
A responsive prayer over the very aromatic pig was led by Cheek and the pig was ceremoniously removed to the kitchen. There, Armand Burke of Allegany, who slow-cooked the main course for 20 hours, was assisted by Joe Noll of Hinsdale and Tim Scanlon of Olean in pulling the pig apart, releasing the smell of roasted pork throughout the building.
Rene Hauser of Olean, who, with Scanlon, prepared most of the meal, was finishing the final touches. They had the assistance of over a dozen volunteers overall and Hauser pointed out that “it’s a community affair” and there were many people involved in the organization and execution of the dinner.
Meanwhile, back in the sanctuary, Cherry introduced the 2020 Boar’s Head Lord of the Feast ─ John Heinz of Olean, a long-time member of the church, who also happened to be celebrating his 90th birthday Saturday ─ with his son saying a few words about his father’s accomplishments.
Prior lords have included Paul Gonzalez, current Olean Common Council president; Bill Aiello, mayor of Olean; and Rev. John Macholz, bishop of the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA).
Hector Correa, bar manager at Four Mile and who has participated in the event for two years, gave those in the crowd a brief history of the brewing company and the two beers available on tap at the feast.
After a service interspersed with the singing of carols, it was time for the Processional to the Feast and the crowd eagerly lined up to walk over to the fellowship hall. The dinner was ready and a line quickly formed leading to the kitchen window where platefuls of pork, sauerkraut, coleslaw, boiled potatoes and baked beans were served. Cornbread at the table rounded out the dinner.
Legend also has it that over the course of hundreds of years, people began to dress up as popular characters like Robin Hood or court jesters and jugglers and host parades. While Cheek laughed and said there was nothing like that in the church’s fellowship hall, he did say that people enjoyed watching Owen Gould, who each year dresses as a wizard and wends his way around the tables and talking to people while juggling three balls.
Mike and Pat Cady of Cuba had attended the Boar’s Head Feast before, and they were enjoying the evening as they talked to people and ate dinner.
“I really like it,” Pat said of the event. “The pastor explains the history of it. And he shows up in a kilt.”
When asked what he liked most, Mike said “all of it,” and added that “whoever raised the pig did a good job,” as he stabbed another forkful of pork off his plate.
There were a lot of people doing that Saturday night.
Proceeds from the Boar’s Head Feast, with tickets at $30 per person, are shared with the community. This year, 10% of the proceeds each will go to Genesis House and to Lutheran World Relief. Fifty dollars each will be donated to the Olean Association of Churches and the local ELCA conference.