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Happy Feast of the Ass (No, Really!)

It was a thing during the Middle Ages.
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Today isn’t just one day before sweldo day. It’s also not just Carlos P. Romulo’s birthday, or the death anniversary of actor Spanky Manikan. January 14 also happens to be a day when Christians celebrate the Festum Asinorum or Feast of the Ass.

It might seem like we’re kidding, but the Feast of the Ass was a real Christian celebration that was observed during medieval times. It commemorates all the times the humble donkey (or ass) was mentioned in the Bible, but is most often associated with the one that supposedly carried Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt to escape King Herod.

Just like Christmas, the Feast of the Ass is rooted in pagan traditions, specifically one called Cervulus, which was a Roman festival. The feast involved a girl and a young boy (some say it was just a pregnant girl) who would ride a donkey as it was led through town to the church. The donkey would then be made to stand near the altar as the priest said mass. Some accounts however mention that the ass is a wooden figure instead of a real-life animal).

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The feast was observed mainly in France, with the earliest accounts in the 11th century. It had variations; in the town of Beauvais for example, the mass at St. Stephen’s Church would begin with a Latin prose that the congregation would sing:

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Orientis partibus

Adventavit Asinus

Pulcher et fortissimus

Sarcinis aptissimus.

In French: 

Hez, Sire Asnes, car chantez,

Belle bouche rechignez,

Vous aurez du foin assez

Et de l'avoine a plantez.

English: 

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.

 

And instead of saying “Amen,” the congregation would bray “Y-a” like a donkey. These celebrations tended to get noisy and raucous, an occasion for laughter and a parody of the holy mass.

Even the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote about the Feast of the Ass. In his paper, “On the Psychology of the Trickster-Figure” in The archetypes and the collective unconscious, Jung mentions “a codex dating apparently from the 11th century.”

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“At the end of the mass, instead of the words 'Ite missa est,' the priest would bray three times.”

And the people, instead of replying with Deo Gratias (Thanks be to God), would say ‘Hinham, hinham, hinham.’

By the 1500s, the Feast of the Ass and, another similar feast, the Feast of Fools, began to decline due in no small part to the Roman Catholic Church suppressing the festivals. Some historians believe the dramatic flourishes in the celebration just became too ridiculous and disrespectful to the solemnity of the mass. It lingered in some places for years after, but eventually completely disappeared and is no longer observed in modern times. 

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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