January 14 is “Feast of the Ass” Day

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A Brief History

On January 14, medieval Christians celebrated Feast of the Ass Day, although perhaps not the type of “ass” you may be thinking of!  It actually celebrated the various accounts in the Bible where a donkey (or ass) is mentioned, especially the one that supposedly carried Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt.

Digging Deeper

Not surprisingly, like many or even most Christian holidays, the Feast of the Ass had its origins in Paganism, being derived from the religious feast called Cervulus.

Flight into Egypt by Gentile da Fabriano

During this bestial-based holy day, a ceremony often took place in which a girl with a baby (or a pregnant girl) was led through a village on a donkey, followed by churchgoers answering the priest with “hee-haws” during the related church service or Mass.  In some accounts, the priest himself would bray.  (You can make this stuff up, but we did not!)

Amazingly, this nifty holiday fell out of favor around 1500 along with its sister feast, the Feast of Fools.  Apparently some thought the titles and actions of these two celebrations were less than “Christian.” 

Feast of Fools, Carving in Beverley Minster, from The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, Volume 94, Part 1, p.62, Jan 1824.

Perhaps they should bring this particular feast back and give people a valid excuse, at least one day a year, to make an “ass” of themselves in church. 

Questions for students: What is your favorite holiday or festival and why?

Russian icon of the Flight into Egypt; the bottom section shows the idols of Egypt miraculously falling down before Jesus and being smashed (17th century).

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

New London Consort and Philip Pickett.  The Feast Of Fools/Mass Of The Asses, Drunkards And Gamblers – Gambler’s Prayer/Malediction.  Decca Music Group Limited, 1992.

The Feast Of Fools/Mass Of The Asses, Drunkards And Gamblers – Gambler’s Prayer/Malediction (MP3 Music)


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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.