The Feast of Fools
by Gene Sager
A group of philosophers and
activists, friends, and neighbors has revived an ancient feast dedicated to
having fun. And they’re demonstrating the wisdom of balancing world-changing
with pure play. Here is inspiration for your Feast.
The original Feast of Fools was
celebrated in Medieval Europe as comic relief from the restrictions and
gravity of contemporary society. The merriment included outrageous games,
parades, silly dances and songs, and the lampooning of political and
religious officials. The mirthful event was observed around January first
and was celebrated annually until the Council of Basil condemned and banned
it in 1431.
Photo (c) Gene Sager
My family and friends, eight of us,
have revived the feast; we have retained the basics of the celebration, but
we have dispensed with the lampooning. Lampooning can carry value messages
and, for some participants, appear to promote or demote a political or
religious cause. Such a message runs counter to the crucial, central theme
of the Feast of Fools, which is pure play. Pure play, unlike work and
activism, is an end in itself; it is non-instrumental. It enjoys the here
and now, neither trying to push nor pull the world this way or that.
We have found that the more foolish
the game or activity, the more playful the play. Last year’s feast included
balancing a stack of toilet tissue rolls while walking a simple obstacle
course (right). By contrast, a well-known game or an activity associated
with common social holidays can be humdrum or may even be loaded with
distracting memories. Activities like the fool’s parade (see photo) is just
foolish enough to help us unload our memories and let go of our inhibitions.
The fools come to our home at about
two o’clock in the afternoon, wearing bizarre, creative outfits and, if this
year is wacky hat year, a crazy hat. My personal favorite was a homemade hat
piled very high with artificial fruit. Somehow, it stayed together and
crowned the fool throughout the games. The house is decorated tastefully
with socks and shoe strings hanging from streamers. We begin with a
champagne (or alternative) toast and “horse divers” – organic vegan finger
food. The fool’s parade proceeds slowly around our long loop driveway. It
features different drums and instruments every year. I keep time with a
saucepan and wooden spoon. Outdoor games follow the parade.
One of the indoor games is the
distance candle blow. The fools see how much wind they have. The “easy blow”
is ten inches away. Then we try the sixteen inch challenge, and so on. We
see how far our “blow out” ability extends. A very different wind activity
is each fool’s story of the most foolish thing he or she has ever done.
These are humorous, true stories of weakness of mind or weakness of will.
After all the outdoor and indoor activities, it is time for an organic vegan
feast served on metal pie plates. It can be a potluck, but we have found
that it is easy enough if we (the hosts) make a big veggie stew or stir-fry
and serve oranges from our trees.
We have hosted the Feast for five
years in April; the weather and our fruit and garden veggies are perfect at
this time in southern California. The designated wacky apparel and the
activities are different every year. All phones and electronic devices are
turned off. Since not everyone can be a fool, we invite only those who can.
Of course, children are welcome. Most children naturally enjoy pure play. As
we say, “Except as ye become like a little child, ye shall not enter the
Kingdom of Fools.”
As Harvey Cox says in the book
Feast of Fools, “World changers
need not be joyless and ascetic.”
A word about the competitive spirit.
Since the games are quite silly, most people don’t feel competitive. Some
years we have awarded points for games and crowned the overall winner as the
Monarch of Misrule. But, depending on the personalities, you might want to
mitigate the competitive aspect by making wacky changes in the game as it
goes along. By the end, no one really knows who is the “victor.” Finally,
don’t let the Feast of Fools become a complicated event. The costumes, the
decorations, the food, the games…keep them simple and easy.
The original Feast of Fools was
banned by Medieval church officials because it was sometimes distorted into
drunken revelry and mean-spirited lampooning. We are engaged in undrunken
pure play, so we do not expect to be banned by the city or church officials!
In fact, our neighbors look forward to the Feast of Fools, and we recommend
it to all who dare to be foolish.
We dare to claim we have learned a
bit about homo festivus. What is the point of balancing rolls of toilet
paper? There is no point. Such activities are “meaningless” in a good sense
of the term. For philosophers, we hasten to add that our philosophy is not
nihilistic. We do not believe, as the nihilists do, that life has no value
or meaning. Many of the fools in our group are committed activists who
strive for social justice and a healthy environment. But, as Harvey Cox says
in his 1969 book The Feast of Fools, “World changers need not be joyless and ascetic.” Neither
is their festivity escapist or obsessive. To balance our world-changing
work, we need to enjoy pure fun. If the Feast of Fools has a point or
meaning, it is just that: to let go and have fun.
Gene Sager is Professor of
Environmental Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California and a
frequent contributor to Natural Life Magazine.