In the days before the average churchgoer could read, medieval churches held theatrical spectacles based on scriptural history to impress religious truths upon their congregations. One of these pageants, originally known as the Festum Asinorum (Latin) or Fête de l’âne (French) and now as the Feast of the Ass, commemorates the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. It was (and is occasionally even now) celebrated on January 14.
Charles du Fresne, sieur Du Cange (1610 – 1688), French philologist and historian, describes the French Medieval Feast of the Ass in his Glossary of Medieval and Late Latin (Paris, 1678). The pageant begins, Du Cange tells us, with a solemn procession through the streets of the city. The principal players are a beautiful girl cradling an infant in her arms and the splendidly decorated donkey on which she rides. The donkey and his burden are escorted to the city’s principal church and placed near the high altar. Then follows a special mass in which, in place of the usual responses (“amen”), the congregation brays like an ass.
At the conclusion of the Mass, the officiating priest brays three times instead of reciting the usual “Ite, Missa est”; in turn, instead of replying “Deo Gratias,” the congregation cries, “Hinham, hinham, hinham” (hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw).
Excerpted from Sue Weaver, The Donkey Companion (Storey Publishing, 2008).