Feast of the Ass

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Feast of the Ass

In the Middle Ages, people in some parts of France commemorated the Holy Family's Flight into Egypt with a celebration called the Feast of the Ass. Not only did Christian legends place an ass in the stable where Jesus was born, but also medieval people imagined Mary and the baby Jesus riding on an ass led by Joseph as they plodded towards their Egyptian exile. Later, a donkey would carry the adult Jesus into the city of Jerusalem on the week before his death, an event celebrated on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter (John 12:14-15). The ceremonies associated with the Feast of the Ass honored all the donkeys who played roles in these and other well-known Christian stories. They took place on January 14.

The festivities featured a procession in which a young girl with a baby rode through the city streets on an ass while people sang a silly song honoring the creature:

Orientis partibus Adventavit asinus, Pucher et fortissimos, Sarcinis aptissimus. Hez, Sir asne, hez!

From Oriental country came A lordly ass of highest fame, So beautiful, so strong and trim, No burden was too great for him. Hail, Sir Donkey, hail (Weiser, 1952, 127).

The ass was then led into a church where religious services took place. Like the Feast of Fools, these ceremonies tended to get out of hand. The topsy-turvy ambience of medieval Christmas celebrations encouraged high-spirited excesses that gradually turned the event into a burlesque (see also Europe, Christmas in Medieval). Particularly raucous celebrations took place in the town of Beauvais. After the procession, the ass entered the church, where it was lavished with food and drink. At the same time, the clergy conducted a kind of parody of the evening prayer service, which ended with everyone braying like an ass as they danced around the befuddled creature. Afterwards actors presented humorous folk plays outside the church doors. The last event of the day was a Midnight Mass, which the priest brought to a close by braying three times.

These hijinks caused the Roman Catholic Church to officially suppress the Feast of the Ass in the fifteenth century. It lingered for many years after that in some places, however.

Further Reading

Goldwasser, Maria Julia. "Carnival." In Mircea Eliade, ed. Encyclopedia ofReligion. Volume 3. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol-ogy, and Legend. San Francisco, Calif.: Harper and Row, 1984. Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.

Ass, Feast of the

Around Christmas, December 25
This festival recalling the flight of the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph) into Egypt to escape King Herod reached its peak during the Middle Ages in France. It was customary to have a girl carrying a baby and riding an elaborately decorated ass led through the streets to the church, where a mass was said. But the celebration gradually took on comic overtones, with the priest and congregation imitating the braying of an ass at appropriate times during the service and the ass itself being led into the church and given food and drink. By the 15th century the feast had obviously become nothing more than an occasion for laughter, and it was suppressed thereafter by the Church, although it didn't completely die out until years afterward.
See also Feast of Fools
BkDays-1864, vol. I, p. 112
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 84
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 247
EncyRel-1987, vol. 3, p. 99
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 254