Today 28th December is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, those infants killed by Herod when he realised that his monitoring of the three wise men had failed to lead him to Jesus, the Messiah King. There are many different historical versions of the practices of the mediaeval Feast of Fools which resulted from the association of innocence (i.e. folly, and fools for Christ) and the donkey, the beast which bore Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt. So, for example in the Feast of the Ass, a young girl representing the Virgin Mary, seated on a donkey, was led into the church and positioned at the alter as the congregation responded “Hee-haw” to a fake priest’s sermon. The Feast of Fools began traditionally during Vespers at the singing of the Magnificat. The hymn would be cut short on reaching the line “He has put down the mighty from their thones, and lifted up the lowly”; whereupon, in cathedrals the bishop would be forcibly put down from his see, and the lowly – in English tradition a boy bishop – replaced him for a week. Sometimes the Feast of Fools is compared with the pagan winter reversals of custom, or even the Roman Saturnalia, and certainly these customs do borrow from one another, but the Christian feast is quite distinct in many ways, not least in the symbolism of the donkey, or ass. The fool’s hood bears distinctive donkey ears and there is a clear association of the long ears and the innocence of the ass: the Holy Innocent as the Christ-like fool (cf. Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin in The Idiot.)
This is indeed a rich tradition and one which I spent some time researching at the Central School of Art in the early 1980s. When it came to the assessment of our MA dissertations, things could not have turned out more foolish. My tutor told me, “They are either going to fail you or give you a distinction.” I waited with a pint of John Smiths beer in the Central Club while the decision was made, and I was awarded a distinction. It was a justification of folly, as far as I was concerned.
In those days, we were taught life drawing by the mystical painter Cecil Collins, renowned for his drawings and paintings of fools. So this Holy Innocents Feast of Fools on the 28th December is a very special occasion for me. The standard text on the subject of the fool is a lovely book written in the 1920s, titled simply The Fool (Blog update 29/12/14: I finally remembered, the author was Enid Welsford) I could spend the rest of the night writing about the fool, and renew my enthusiasm for King Lear and Erasmus, and I would probably enjoy myself tremendously, but this is not really the point of my post. I will get back to the point: the association of the Feast of Fools with donkeys. There is surely a connection between the presence of the ass in the stable – as famously represented in the first Christmas crib devised by St Francis in 1223 in Greccio – and the ass’s ears in the foolish livery for the Holy Innocents’ festivities?
There is an association between the Christ child and the donkey, and the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: for the donkey is the traditional mount of kings. Saint Paul takes up the theme in 1 Corinthians 4:10, “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are honourable, but we without honour.” (Douay-Rheims translation.) Also, Paul talks in 1 Corinthians of the preaching of the cross as “foolishness”. The association of foolishness with Christian simplicity and innocence, leads to the symbolic expression of foolishness and innocence in the long ridiculous ears of the donkey, stylised in the jester’s hood. The centrality of the donkey in the Feast of Fools on this day, 28th December – the feast of the Holy Innocents – made this animal forever a symbol of both foolishness and innocence. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom awakes from his dream – having played only the part of an ass at the court entertainment – but in his dream he has spent the night with Titania the queen of the faeries. He was elevated to the highest mystical experience. In the end – notwithstanding the somewhat rambling nature of this blogpost – the donkey is our perfect companion in this earthly Feast of Fools. The donkey offers us an example of innocence and simplicity. If we keep still and listen and watch attentively, the donkey can lead us into some small experience of the nature of eternity. I say “experience” not understanding: with donkeys we do not get much in the way of understanding…