FOOLS, FEAST OF (Festum stultorum, fatuorum, follorum; Fête des foux): A Christian survival of the old Roman Saturnalia. In the early Church participation in all heathen festivals was strongly interdicted, but there is evidence that about year 200 there were Christians who still longed the amusements of this season (Tertullian, De idololatria, xliv.). By the fourth century it was widely observed by Christians. It was opposed by Chrysostom and Asterius of Amasia in the East, and by Augustine, Maximus of Turin, and Petrus Chrysologus of Ravenna in the West. Here an effort was made to remove the heathen character of the feast by making Jan. 1, and occasionally the next following days church festivals (see NEW YEAR'S FESTIVAL). Such measures, however, were in vain. The heathen observance persisted, and in the sixth and seventh centuries it was taken up by Christians among the West Goths, the Franks, and the Anglo-Saxons. Despite the opposition of the Church the Saturnalia continued to be generally celebrated by Romans, Franks, and the various Germanic peoples till into the eleventh century. The festival seems then to have been gradually forgotten by the populace.
Though the Church had fought the custom all along, it was the clergy by whom it was revived. It was now made a regular religious festival. Each of the clerical groups had long had its special day: the deacons, St. Stephen's day (Dec. 26); the priests, St. John's day (Dec. 27); the boys, Holy Innocents' day (Dec. 28); the subdeacons, New Year's day or Epiphany, Jan. 6. Later the festivals of the subdeacons and the children became especially popular, and the latter developed the unseemly performances of the "Boy-bishop" (q.v.). Similar extravagances and excesses are found in the festivals of the priests, deacons, and subdeacons as early as the twelfth century. The latter, like the boys, elected a bishop, whom they accompanied to the church in festive procession. Here a parody on the mass was held, which was enlivened by jokes and ribald songs, sometimes by bloody brawls.
The first attempt to suppress these extravagances was made in Paris in 1198 by the papal legate, Peter of Capua. In 1210 Innocent III. forbade the festivals of priests, deacons, and subdeacons, and in 1246 Innocent IV. made such observances punishable with excommunication. Nevertheless they continued, and in the fourteenth century there were even rituals for the ceremonies. Often the fool-bishop was required to give the usual banquet "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost." At the end of the fourteenth century the clergy appeared in the churches masquerading as animals, women, and mountebanks. Instead of incense, sausage, or pieces of old shoes were burned; instead of the responses, songs of doubtful character were sung; and instead of the holy wafer, sausage was eaten. There were also dancing and games, such as throwing of dice. The processions, in which nude boys amused the rabble with suggestive gestures and speeches, were even worse.
Through an encyclical addressed to all bishops in France by the University of Paris, May 12, 1444, and made effective by an order of Charles VII., Apr. 17, 1445, these sacrilegious practises were finally stopped, at least in France, where they had been most common. The children's festival, though often opposed and forbidden by the Council of Basel (1431), was less objectionable and survived into the sixteenth century. In Cologne the custom continued till the seventeenth, and in Reims and Mainz till the eighteenth century.