The Feast of Fools

By The Feast of Fools

1 January

The first day of the new year brings a selection of traditions, ranging from the informal Janus-inspired dual view of looking back at the past year whilst ahead to the next, to the considerably more dogmatic Feast of the Circumcision. According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus was circumcised eight days after his birth, and this is celebrated either on New Years’ Day or on 3 January, where it is also referred to as the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. In past centuries, however, the beginning of the new calendar meant participating in the Feast of Fools.

The feast itself is the centre-point of the term held by the Lord of Misrule, who traditionally would be appointed on Hallowe’en (31 October) and would hold the title until Candlemas (2 February). The Lord of Misrule was an anti-Pope, of sorts, as well as the herald of Father Winter, later Father Christmas, who until the Victorian era was a god-like figure of celebration and merrymaking that dates from pre-Christian Britain. The Lord of Misrule would cause mischief, encouraging feasting and foolery, dressing in bells and ribbons, and act as the Father’s envoy to ensure his wishes were met throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas.

But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise

1 Corinthians 1:27, KJV

Regional versions were dictated by the traditions of the district or parish, but even they could change at the whim of the Lord of Misrule. The Feast of Fools could include parades, mock appointments, false clergy or existing clergy switching places, and was in a sense a type of social revolution. There were no rules, only misrule, which led to negative attention from the church. Variations of the Feast of Fools took place across Europe, particularly in France where the tradition lingered considerably longer than anywhere else, and it was documented by Victor Hugo in his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris.

The practice of the Feast of Fools and the declaration of a Lord of Misrule were both banned in England by Henry VIII, though later concessions allowed some version of each at different times. Since the Victorian reformation of Christmas, led by the likes of Charles Dickens to provide a more family-oriented festival, the Feast of Fools has effectively died out. The Feast of Fools was, in every sense of the word, chaos.

Giovanni Bellini, The Feast of the Gods
Giovanni Bellini, The Feast of the Gods, Public Domain