Boar’s Head festival celebrates Epiphany at Fort Worth church

Medieval costumes, from Beefeater guards’ crimson jackets to cooks in long white aprons, remain part of the pageantry at the annual Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival, an Epiphany celebration at University Christian Church. This photo is from 1998.

Medieval costumes, from Beefeater guards’ crimson jackets to cooks in long white aprons, remain part of the pageantry at the annual Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival, an Epiphany celebration at University Christian Church. This photo is from 1998.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection, UTA Libraries Special Collections

When casting 150 performers for the annual Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival, the costumes determine who fits into each role. Each piece of Renaissance apparel, designed and stitched 47 years ago for the annual Epiphany pageant at University Christian Church, was made to last. And they have — without alterations.

LaLonnie Lehman, a costume historian and designer who in the 1970s helped research, create, stitch and embroider the costumes, still supervises their wear and care. “They are in very pristine shape. They are only worn two days a year for two performances each day. That’s it. It’s not like they are being worn out. They are not to be loaned to anyone for anything else. That was the stipulation I made.”

That’s why the costumes are stored at the church, under lock and key, until a week before the pageant, which falls on the twelfth day of Christmas — this season on Jan. 6 and 7, with free performances each day at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. People line up for seats an hour in advance outside the church at 2720 University Blvd. across from the Texas Christian University campus.

The pageant transforms the sanctuary into a medieval fair with pilgrims and peasants wearing burlap and lords and ladies robed in silks, satins, brocades, velvets and corduroys. Some garments are made from fabric woven with silver threads that’s no longer commercially available. White slipper-type shoes — painted to match each costume — were purchased from a dance company that no longer manufactures the item. Thus actors who don tights, tunics, capes and crowns are cast according to height, weight, age, head size, and shoe size.

Lehman was a 35-year-old costume designer at TCU when the church’s senior minister, the Rev. A.M. Pennybacker, proposed that the congregation recreate the ancient Boar’s Head pageant with authentic music, dance and dress. He had seen the Yuletide festival of yore performed at Cincinnati’s Christ Church Cathedral and Cleveland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

He asked an associate minister to invite Lehman to design the costumes.

“I told him absolutely not,” Lehman recalled.

Not another amateur Christmas pageant

Without resources, she envisioned an amateur Christmas pageant staged with shepherds wearing bathrobes. A few weeks later, the minister contacted her again to assure her, “This will be different. Tell you what, we will send you to Cincinnati to see their production.”

With another congregant, Henry Hammack, her mentor and chairman of TCU’s Theatre Arts Department, Lehman traveled to Ohio to “see what it was about.” The Cincinnati production, which dates to 1939, enthralled them with its lush costumes, inter-generational cast from kindergartners to elders, and procession of knights, court jesters, cooks, and courtiers. She learned that churches in England had been reenacting the drama for 600 years. She could select whatever medieval period she wished to recreate.

Expect a full house at the annual Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival at University Christian Church, where Beefeater guards in bright red jackets lead the procession carrying an actual boar’s head down the aisle. This photo is from the 1998 pageant. It hasn’t changed a bit.
Expect a full house at the annual Boar’s Head and Yule Log Festival at University Christian Church, where Beefeater guards in bright red jackets lead the procession carrying an actual boar’s head down the aisle. This photo is from the 1998 pageant. It hasn’t changed a bit. Carolyn Bauman Cruz Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection, UTA Libraries Special Collections

“We were terribly excited,” said Lehman, whose book “The Boar’s Head Festival — A Christmas Celebration,” published in 2005, is geared to children and adults. “They gave us their script. They gave us their music.”

Hammack became pageant director. Lehman was eager to imagine and construct costumes. Together they began identifying groups of participants, drafting patterns, purchasing fabrics and trims, and cutting and stitching.

The history of the Boar’s Head festival

The Boar’s Head festival revolves around the legend of an Oxford scholar who wandered through the woods reading the works of Aristotle. A wild boar suddenly charged toward him with an open mouth. The student plunged his metal-bound book down the throat of the beast, who choked to death. The lesson was clear: reason had triumphed over savagery. The boar’s head was carried to Queen’s Chapel at Oxford for a feast that ties in with the story of the Nativity.

At the Fort Worth production, a real infant is carried to the manger and held up, sometimes kicking and squirming, for all to see. “We want them to move, want them to be realistic,” Lehman said. One year, the mother cast as Virgin Mary was behind the scenes nursing her baby and almost missed her cue. “Babies have schedules,” Lehman said.

Although the pageant has no spoken words, “there’s one part where there’s a tiny bit of acting, the King Wenceslas part,” Lehman said. “He needs to gesture. He sends two pages out to bring food for a poor man. He bends down. He talks to the children. He coordinates actions with the song.”

Whom to cast as king? “A few of us that worked in theater, we were brainstorming. Someone said, ‘How about we ask Dick Harris,’” a local actor with a regal bearing. Although Harris was a congregant at nearby St. Stephen Presbyterian, he had sung with the UCC choir. He proved eager to wear the king’s cape — a massive, hand-painted cloak. He performed the role from 1976 to 2009, five months before he died at age 83.

The annual pageant opens with a procession of Beefeaters, the king’s guards. Their red-cotton jackets with black satin ribbon are patterned after uniforms pictured on bottles of Beefeater Gin. The soldiers’ thick black belts were made with leather purchased locally from the Tandy Leather factory that closed decades ago. Church members crafted the belts.

Chapeaus complementing costumes were custom made, dozens of them at an unlikely millinery shop — Peters Bros., the cowboy-hat maker located since 1911 at 909 Houston.

Lehman worked with the late Joe Peters, directing him how to block, cut, and shape felt hats into Renaissance fedoras. “He was fun, fun, fun!” she said.

When the pageant ends for the season, Lehman’s work is not over. “In theater, if it touches the skin, it is cleaned.” Her cleaner of choice is Fort Worth Laundry & Dry Cleaners, in business since 1927 at 1307 N. Main. “They always had pickup and delivery service.”

The wardrobe crew takes home tights to wash and return by Friday. “All were dyed to match their costumes and are matched back up again. We have a check-out and check-in system.” The tights are a variety of colors: red for sprites; grays and browns for woodsmen and hunters; purple for cooks who carry plum pudding; blues, yellow and maroon. They are matched with the correct costume and stored for another year.

Each piece of apparel is irreplaceable. “We have a treasure trove here,” says longtime production manager Carol Lawrence. “That’s why we are protective of the costumes.”

Hollace Ava Weiner, an author, historian and archivist, is director of the Fort Worth Jewish Archives.

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