The Feast of the Ass was observed on this date primarily in medieval France as a by-product of the Feast of Fools which celebrated all donkey related stories in the Bible. The 14th January celebration focused on the Flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13–23), in particular the donkey bearing the Holy Family into Egypt after Jesus’ birth. So, if you want to keep the Christmas story going a little longer, here is your opportunity. The feast was first celebrated in the 11th century, inspired by the pseudo-Augustinian “Sermo contra Judaeos” c. 6th century. In the second half of the 15th century, the feast disappeared gradually, along with the Feast of Fools, which was suppressed around the same time as being irreverent. Feast of the Ass was not considered as objectionable as the Feast of Fools, but it did encourage a kind of mockery of the liturgy. Typically, a girl and a child on a donkey would be led through town to the church, where the donkey would stand beside the altar during the sermon, and the congregation would “hee-haw” their responses to the priest.
In the 11th century “Sermo contra Judaeos” had taken the form of a metrical dramatic dialogue with a stage-arrangement adhering closely to the original text. Additions and adaptations were gradually introduced. A Rouen manuscript of the 13th century represents 28 prophets as taking part in the play. After Terce, the rubric directs, “let the procession move to the church, in the centre of which let there be a furnace and an idol for the brethren to refuse to worship.” The procession filed into the choir. On the one side were seated Moses, Amos, Isaias, Aaron, Balaam and his Ass, Zachary and Elizabeth, John the Baptist and Simeon. The three Gentile prophets sat opposite. The proceedings were conducted under the auspices of Saint Augustine. The presiding dignitary called on each of the prophets, who successively testified to the birth of the Messiah. When the Sibyl had recited her acrostic lines on the Signs of Judgment, all the prophets sang in unison a hymn of praise to the long-sought Savior. Mass immediately followed. The part that pleased the congregation was the role of Balaam and the Ass; hence the popular designation of the Processus Prophetarum as the Feast of the Ass. The part of Balaam was soon dissociated from its surroundings and expanded into an independent drama. The Rouen rubrics direct that two messengers be sent by king Balaak to bring forth the prophet. Balaam advances riding on a gorgeously caparisoned ass (a wooden, or hobby, ass with a person concealed inside). From the Chester pageant it is clear that the prophet rode on a wooden animal, since the rubric supposes that the speaker for the beast is “in asina”. Then follows the scene in which the ass meets the angered angel and protests at length against the cruelty of the rider. Once detached from the parent stem, the Festum Asinorum branched in various directions. In the Beauvais 13th century document the Feast of Asses is already an independent trope with the date and purpose of its celebration changed.
At Beauvais the Ass may have continued his minor role of enlivening the long procession of Prophets. On January 14, however, he discharged an important function in that city’s festivities. On the feast of the Flight into Egypt the most beautiful girl in the town, with a pretty child in her arms, was placed on a richly draped ass, and conducted with religious gravity to St Stephen’s Church. The ass (possibly a wooden figure) was stationed at the right of the altar, and the Mass was begun. After the Introit a Latin prose verse was sung.
The first stanza and its French refrain may serve as a specimen of the nine that follow:
Pulcher et fortissimus
Hez, Sire Asnes, car chantez,
Belle bouche rechignez,
Vous aurez du foin assez
Et de l’avoine a plantez.
(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.)
Mass was continued, and at its end, apparently without a sense of impropriety, the following direction (in Latin) was observed:
In fine Missae sacerdos, versus ad populum, vice ‘Ite, Missa est’, ter hinhannabit: populus vero, vice ‘Deo Gratias’, ter respondebit, ‘Hinham, hinham, hinham.’
(At the end of Mass, the priest, facing the people, in place of ‘Ite missa est’, will bray three times: the people instead of replying ‘Deo Gratias’ say, ‘Hinham, hinham, hinham.’)
This is the sole instance of a service of this nature in connection with the Feast of Ass. The Festum Asinorum gradually lost its identity, and became incorporated in the ceremonies of the Deposuit or united in the general merry-making on the Feast of Fools. The Processus Prophetarum, whence it drew its origin, survived in the Corpus Christi and Whitsun play cycles in England.
I have mentioned the impropriety of reindeer for Christmas dinner (even though it is common in parts of Scandinavia), or rabbit for Easter dinner. A donkey stew for this feast is irresistible, however. Stracotto d’asino (stewed ass), is a specialty of Mantua where I lived for two years. It took some time to find a restaurant that served it because it is not a popular dish any more, and when I first tasted it, I was not impressed. It was all right, but not great. There was a horse butcher near my home that sold donkey on order so I bought some and experimented. Eventually I produced a stracotto that Mantovani all claimed was the best they had eaten – better than any in a local restaurant. Well – so much for humility. My “secret” was to add cloves and allspice to the dish’s aromatics. Allspice (pepe de Giamaica in Italian) is not easy to find because it is not used in Italian dishes, but I had some left from Christmas cooking, and it was a big hit with my Italian guests. If cooking donkey offends you, you could substitute beef, I suppose.
600 gm donkey meat, cut in chunks
1 slice of bacon, cut in pieces
1 white onion, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 cup red wine
200 gm tomato pulp
1 clove garlic, peeled and sliced thin
ground nutmeg, pepper, cloves, allspice and cinnamon
Put the meat in a bowl with the onion, garlic, bay leaves and spices (to taste). Add the red wine, stir and let marinate overnight in the refrigerator. See the HINTS tab for marinating techniques.
Next day, strain off the marinade and keep it separate. In a heavy, deep skilled over medium heat fry the bacon. Add a little butter to the bacon fat and brown the meat and vegetables. Add back the marinade plus the tomato pulp, cover and simmer very slowly for at least 5 hours. Check the liquid level from time to time and add hot broth if needed. Cook until the meat is very tender and the broth is thick.
The stracotto can be served with macaroni, or as a second course with grilled polenta.