Feasts and Fools

151026jackHalloween will soon be upon us. The origins of this holiday are obscure. It is often connected with the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, but Halloween, at least as popularly celebrated today in the US and some other countries, has wider connections. It is an example of a type of holiday found in many cultures: the “feast of fools.”

The original Feast of Fools was a medieval festival celebrated largely in northern France and southern England on the first of January. It was part of the general revelry of the Christmas season, but the special feature of the Feast of Fools was the temporary upending of social norms. Adults played children’s games and children played at being adults. A boy was appointed bishop for the day and people had to follow his silly orders. A slapstick version of liturgical drama was played out in the church. While later writers sometimes imagined the Feast of Fools as a wild transgression of orderly life, contemporary evidence suggests that it was rather mild and celebrated more in a spirit of good fun than raucous abandon.

In its temporary reversal or suspending of social norms, the Feast of Fools is like many other holidays. These include the Roman Saturnalia, in which slaves and masters exchanged places for a day, the masters served the slaves of the house a feast, and everyone wore the traditional caps of freedmen. The Jewish festival of Purim has similar elements of revelry with people wearing costumes and masks, the performance of comical plays, and the relaxing of some religious rules. The many variations of Carnevale celebrated around the world (including New Orleans’s famous Mardi Gras) often involve costumes and the transgression of everyday social customs.

Setting aside the rules of everyday life, becoming someone else for a day, leaving your identity behind for a while—these are things that people seem to need. It can be hard to keep going day after day following all the rules of social decorum. Having one day a year you can look forward to when you get to leave all that behind for a while can ease the strain. Even on a “feast of fools” day, though, there is still a sense of propriety. Carnevale, Halloween, and the like are an excuse to let loose a little, not to go crazy. The rules get relaxed a little, not thrown out entirely. The rituals and customs of the holiday provide their own set of rules for the day. Knocking on strangers’ doors and asking for candy isn’t okay most days of the year, but on Halloween it is—but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to swipe their tv or burn their house down.

“Feasts of fools” are a safe outlet for social pressures. People in every culture need some relief from the burdens of social conventions and it is no surprise that festivals of this kind are found in so many different times and places. Halloween, as it has come to be celebrated in the US and other parts of the western world, fits this mold. It is a day when ordinary rules are suspended and you can become someone else for a while, but still have the comfort of knowing that the usual rules will be back in place come morning.

Looking at exactly what social rules people want to get away from for a day can tell you a lot about the anxieties and pressures that people live with in that culture. Many of the Roman Saturnalia customs had to do with blurring the lines between free people and slaves because Romans felt uneasy about the place of slaves and slavery in their culture. The medieval Feast of Fools provided some relief from the stresses of maintaining an orderly church hierarchy during a period when the church was the main organizing force in many people’s lives.

In the twentieth century Halloween was largely about kids trick-or-treating for candy. This was during the time of great demographic changes: in many countries massive numbers of people moved from small towns and the countryside into cities and new suburbs and, at least in the US, big regional population shifts took people far away from their family homes. Lots of people whose parents and grandparents had grown up knowing everybody in town now found themselves living in dense neighborhoods where they didn’t know their neighbors and couldn’t rely on family and friends to look out for their children. The fear of strangers—and especially of what strangers might do to your children—was a new and powerful stress that people didn’t have time-tested ways of managing. Halloween trick-or-treating represented a release from that stress: the one day a year when it was okay to let your kids take candy from strangers.

As many people have noted (with raillery, chagrin, and other hard to spell emotions), Halloween in the early twenty-first century has become more an adults’ than a children’s holiday and gone from scary to sexy. While we can point and laugh at the proliferation of dubiously “sexy” costumes, we should also think about what this says about the anxieties of our generation. The cultural policing of sexual expression, and especially women’s sexual expression, is nothing new; if anything, it is less onerous today than at any time in recent history. If we are feeling the need for a break from the rules of sexual expression, it may have less to do with the strength of the rules in this cultural moment than their complexity. In a world that has both “slut walk” protests and Girls Gone Wild, I can’t blame anyone who feels like they need a night off from trying to figure out the “right” thing to wear out.

Thoughts for writers

If your world had a “feast of fools,” what would it look like? What are the daily pressures and anxieties that people need a break from? And what are the rules that wouldn’t be relaxed?

Sometimes we see things most clearly by looking at their opposites. If you’re trying to figure out how the world you’re building works, try thinking about the things that don’t work. What are the problems? What are people afraid might happen? What are the little gnawing stresses that threaten to pull the whole thing apart? And how do people cope with those fears?

Part of building a fictional society that feels real is building in problems, anxieties, and tensions: the sorts of things that people have trouble talking about openly because they are too complex or to dangerous to face head-on. What can’t be said aloud, however, will find other ways of coming out.

Image: Winking Halloween pumpkin inside – 2014-10-31, photograph by Tim Evans via Flickr

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.


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