Feast of Fools

Today is both April Fools’ Day and the Feast of Fools, but just how  are New Year’s Day (the date of the medieval Feast of Fools) and our modern April Fool’s Day connected?

They are the same celebration, handed down through the years, possibly back to Roman times. The date was changed in 1523, when the Council of Trent changed the calendar from the Julian to Gregorian version, and moved New Year’s Day from the end of March forward to January 1.

Can you imagine the confusion and resistance, even with modern advertising and communications, if a modern pope switched the dates of Easter and Christmas!? (A much simpler shift, the modern implementation of Daylight Savings Time, was hotly argued and resisted for many years.)

To further complicate matters, in 1444 the church had officially banned the Feast of Fools celebration as blasphemous and subversive. Although some rowdier aspects could be suppressed, the celebration merely moved from the church to the town square. The revised celebration was marked in some areas on the new date, some on the old. They just didn’t know, or care, about the calendar change. We celebrate on both!

Why should any of this be interesting to us, to-day?  Harvey Cox, author of The Secular City, wrote The Feast of Fools in 1969.   The review on Amazon.com states:

In this fascinating interpretation of contemporary culture and theology, Harvey Cox examines both the loss and reemergence of festivity and fantasy in Western civilization. He evaluates both processes from a theological perspective, defining festivity as the capacity for genuine revelry and joyous celebration and defining fantasy as the faculty for envisioning radically alternative life situations. He asserts that both are absolutely vital to contemporary human life and faith; both are a precondition for genuine social transformation. In a success and money-oriented society we need a rebirth of unapologetically unproductive festivity and expressive celebration. In an age that has quarantined parody and separated politics from imagination, we need a renaissance of social fantasy.

Writing for the comedy blog of the Huffington Post this week, Wes Nisker examines the value and varieties of foolishness today:

Embracing our foolishness, whether collectively or individually, is a practice of liberation. Don’t think of it as defeat, or in any way demeaning or mean-spirited, but rather a bemused acceptance of our predicament. On the fool’s path, (headed for the edge of the cliff, of course) you are free to stick out your tongue at the gods, let your hair grow wild, speak in rhyme, and stumble along without any idea of where you are going. Feel the freedom? It’s a fool’s paradise, and at the very least, you are fool enough to know it.

I plan to celebrate my freedom on April Fool’s Day by coming up with a good prank to play on my family. I will also attempt to find the traditional media pranks before my husband or son discover them.  Because so much of what passes for news is already so outrageous, this is becoming more difficult every year.

I also intend to watch The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Charles Laughton’s heartbreaking performance in the 1939 movie can be seen here… part 10, and part 11 are the best. All of the Disney version, in which the characters are modelled directly on the 1939 version, is also on YouTube.  Roger Ebert gave the Disney version a very enthusiastic review.

If you are busy and merely want to refresh your memory of Victor Hugo’s book, Wikipedia has an excellent plot summary and character list.

Research into the Feast of Fools teaches us how our ancestors rebelled against institutionalized tyranny by publicly shaming its abuse.

April Fool’s Day is more casual, more personal, but still worth celebrating. Public mockery of authority no longer seems to be part of the tradition.

Perhaps this is because the media is doing an excellent job of following and reporting on a regular basis the way our leaders and institutions shame and make fools of themselves! Political cartoons, satiric and ironic commentary, the late night comedians… all take advantage of this. Even matter of fact “straight” news stories frequently reveal the idiocy of what is going on.

We just need to become more aware of this. Laughter is a great weapon against arrogance and hypocrisy. It is good to be reminded of its power and given tacit permission to use it, if only for a day.

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