The Feast of the Ass

14 January - between the 9th and the 15th century, the Feast of the Ass was celebrated by Medieval Christianity north of the Alps.

“Orientis partibus / Adventavit Asinus / Pulcher et fortissimus / Sarcinis aptissimus. / Hez, Sire Asnes, car chantez, / Belle bouche rechignez, / Vous aurez du foin assez / Et de l'avoine a plantez (From the Eastern lands the Ass is come, beautiful and very brave, well fitted to bear burdens. Up! Sir Ass, and sing. Open your pretty mouth. Hay will be yours in plenty, and oats in abundance., French Mass chant sung during the Feast of the Ass.)

Albrecht Dürer "Flight from Egypt" (c 1495)

No one in his right mind would mention Protestantism for its inherent sense of humour and the Reformation and the dawn of the early modern age saw the end of quite a lot of rather peculiar medieval customs, among them the Feast of Fools and the Feast of the Ass. The latter was a celebration of the anniversary of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt and since an ass played a pivotal role, basically, maybe the same beast that was present at the nativity, it was thought befitting that asses would receive their own feast day. Thus, a girl carrying a child rode a donkey through the church, the animal would then be placed beside the altar and the congregation would answer the priest with a hearty “hee-haw”.

A 15th century woodcut, bridging the image of the fool and the ass.

During the High and Late Middle Ages, the Feast of the Ass had developed into elaborate forms in various European regions, chiefly in England, France and the Holy Roman Empire, often along the lines of a mystery play, with the congregation appearing in various animal costumes singing rather bawdy Mass chants and the priest preaching various erotic double entendres, mirroring the old image of donkeys as a phallic symbolic animals and fertility archetype. Often though, the celebrities took a quite anti-Semitic course with imagery, according to C.G. Jung: "from ancient times, the God of the Jews was vulgarly conceived to be an ass--a prejudice that extended to Christ himself" or staging Hebrew prophets and confuting them. By and large though, the Festum Asinorum was good fun where humorous and erotic aspects prevailed over religion and common prejudice.