Flight into Egypt
The feast, by either name, was celebrated on Jan. 14, the traditional feast of the Flight into Egypt. It honored the donkey that carried Mary from Egypt, as well as the donkey — probably the same ass — that bore her to Bethlehem.
Similar liturgical pageantry took place across Europe during these centuries with elaborate plays based on biblical stories, such as the Adoration of the Magi. Besides being fun, these festivals helped teach people about religious themes present in Scriptures. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that the French celebration including a “mock Mass” that included an introit praising the ass as “Sir Ass” who is “beautiful and very brave.”
Mass of the Ass
Traditionally, the most beautiful girl in the village, carrying a baby, was placed upon a donkey and led through town and into church. The donkey, arrayed in finery and jewels, was led to the front of the church for this “pretend Mass.” (This was not always a real donkey, but sometimes a wooden donkey.) At the end of the proceedings, the dismissal again involved the donkey. Instead of saying, “the Mass is ended,” the priest would turn to the congregation and bray three times. The people would answer, “hinham, hinham, hinham” or “hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw” instead of Amen.
A complete 13th century copy of this “Mass of the Ass” from the French town of Beauvais still exists.
Another common theme of the day was the Old Testament story of Balaam and his ass (which is why the day is sometimes called the Feast of the Asses).
Sorcerer meets angel
Balaam’s story is found in the Book of Numbers (22:21-38). Balaam, a sorcerer of great renown, was hired by a foreign king, Balac, to place a curse upon the Israelites. On his way to do just that, Balaan encountered an angel with a sword. Balaam’s donkey could see the angel and shied off the path, trying to save her master. Balaam, however, could not see the angel and beat the donkey mercilessly. Still the creature would not go forward.
Finally, God gave the power of human speech to the ass, who warned Balaam. Still Balaam would not believe and finally the angel appeared to scold him for beating the faithful donkey, which was only saving Balaam’s miserable life.
This, too, makes wonderful pageantry and was enacted in many medieval churches. Sometimes the role of the donkey was filled by a person sitting inside a wooden cage on which Balaam rode. We should pity the person who had to endure those beatings, since the plays could become very realistic.
Bakers and donkeys
Historians speculate that the Feast of the Asses developed out of pagan Rome where the 15th of each month was dedicated to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and the patron of bakers. Since the donkeys ground the grain for the bakers, they were given the day off during the celebration in the month of June.
That celebration, noted by the poet Ovid, may have later been incorporated into Christian celebrations. (It is sometimes confused with the Feast of Fools, a sort of topsy-turvy celebration that was similar to the Roman feast of the Saturnalia, and common throughout Europe at the same time. However, the Catholic Church finally had to condemn and suppress the Feast of Fools because it got out of hand.)
Whatever the truth of the matter, the Feast of Asses died out gradually on its own. However, as we leave the time of Christmas behind (it ends Jan. 13, with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord), we can pause to remember the donkey at our Nativity scenes. And, as we look forward to the time of Lent, we can also remember that another donkey — “the foal of an ass” — that carried the Lord into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. It is, no doubt, a reminder of how the most humble creatures of the world still have their place in God’s plan of salvation.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; fisheaters.com; thebookofdays.com; wikipedia.com and “Catholic Trivia. Our Forgotten Heritage” by Mark Elvins, OFM Cap.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, the Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor.