The community is rich with holiday performances this time of year, but no one puts on a Christmas celebration quite like the one at Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park.
"The neo-Gothic sanctuary of Grace Church is transformed into an old English manor home, with period food and costumes, and we all become guests at the Lord and Lady's Christmas table," said Linda Coberly, who has been attending the annual Boar's Head Feast since her older daughter, Grace, was small and, as a member of the Schola Choir was one of the servers. "I haven't missed it since. She is now in college."
Coberly's younger daughter, Isabel, will be part of the Boar's Head Feast for the last time this year because she is a senior in high school, attending Latin School, Chicago. Both daughters have been part of Boar's Head main entertainment, singing in the Madrigal Choir.
According to Coberly, Dennis Northway, the longtime Grace parish music director created the event nearly 20 years ago.
English Boar's Head festivals date back to the 1300s. Serving wild boar, creatures that threatened villagers, symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. A taxidermy boar, courtesy of a Grace Church parishioner who obtained it on her Texas ranch a number of years ago, is presented during the program, according to Deborah Maue, an organizer of the event.
"All of the parents and many parishioners devote considerable time and effort to the event — cooking, decorating, mending and maintaining costumes, directing and coaching the choir's British accents," Coberly said. "And the smallest singers in the church's youth choirs serve the meal."
The church is lit with candles and decorated with banners and greenery. Those eating dinner sit at Middle Ages-style banquet tables and dine on "Olde English Modern" fare — beef burgundy, noodles, green beans, salad, rolls with herb butter and English trifle. A dessert-only service is also available.
While dining, high-school-age members of Grace's Madrigal Choir perform sacred Christmas music and traditional English Christmas carols in period costume — as jesters, lords and ladies, huntsmen and sprites.
"The setting is medieval, and it takes place on a winter's night near Christmas time; the mayor of a small town and his wife have invited all to their lovely home for a Christmas party," explained Cate Springer, senior at Fenwick High School. We all sing and act and speak in English accents throughout the night. … It is a time for celebration, where all are welcome."
The 25-year-old Madrigal Choir also performs original music. One piece, "Homeland," is written by Grace Coberly. Her mother said she wrote it "as a tribute to the choir, which played a tremendously important role in her life growing up." Grace Coberly is now a junior at Haverford College, studying music and linguistics, and "Homeland" has been published and performed by another choir on its European tour.
Linda Coberly said the piece has "become a mainstay in [Grace Church] choir's repertoire. Performing it is very emotional for the kids, as it really reflects the deep community and bonds created within the choir."
Cate has been in the Madrigal Choir and taken part in the Grace Church holiday tradition since seventh grade. "At first, I just went along with the group — Boar's Head Feast is just part of the Madrigal tradition," she said. "But then … I realized just how important Boar's Head really is. Boar's Head and the Madrigal program as a whole are about more than just singing. They're about becoming part of a close-knit community."
Guests are invited to become part of that community — 14th-century costumes are optional; singing along is encouraged; and merriment is likely unavoidable.
Attend the Boar's Head Feast on Friday, Dec. 6, and Saturday, Dec. 7, 7 p.m., Grace Episcopal Church, 924 Lake St., Oak Park. Enjoy dessert while sitting in church pews. $10, advance; $15 at door. Dinner seating available Friday only, $40, advance. Tickets: graceoakpark.org/boar-s-head-feast.html. Questions: 708-386-8036.
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