…At least, medieval Christianity understood. For most of the year it preached solemnity, order, restraint, fellowship, earnestness, a love of God, and sexual decorum—and then, at New Year’s, it unleashed the festum fatuorum, the feast of fools, and for several days the world was upside down. Clergy played dice on the altar, brayed like donkeys instead of saying “Amen,” had drinking competitions in the nave, farted to the Ave Maria, and delivered spoof sermons based on parodies of the Gospels (The Gospel According to the Chicken’s Arse, perhaps, or The Gospel According to Luke’s Toenail). After drinking tankards of ale, they held their holy books upside down, burned excrement instead of incense, and urinated out of bell towers. They tried to marry donkeys, tied giant woolen penises to their vestments, and held boozy orgies on the altar.
But none of this was just a joke. It was sacred, a parodia sacra, designed to make sure that for the rest of the year things would be the right way up. In 1444, the Paris Faculty of Theology explained to the bishops of France that the feast of fools must remain an indis- pensable part of Christianity,
in order that foolishness, which is our second nature and is inherent in man, can freely spend itself at least once a year. Wine barrels burst if from time to time we do not open them and let in some air. All of us men are barrels poorly put together. . . . This is why we permit folly on certain days: so that we may in the end return with greater zeal to the service of God.
If we want well-functioning communities, we cannot focus only on social virtues. We must also find a place for antisocial ones. We shouldn’t banish feasting and debauchery to the margins, to be mopped up by police and frowned upon by commentators. We should give chaos pride of place once a year or so, an occasion on which we’re able to be released from the two great pressures of secular adult life: to be rational and to be faithful.