“There are two ways to be fooled…” i
In the medieval France of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, two festivals collided on January sixth: “Three Kings Day,” which celebrated the coming of the Magi to worship the baby Jesus, and “The Feast of Fools,” a bawdy and licentious holiday where anything went—and usually did. Hugo’s plot takes advantage of that collision.
Three Kings Day continues to be celebrated in many Catholic countries of Europe and South America. We were intrigued and amused, our first January in Austria, to find men walking up and down the streets of our town dressed as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, the names given to the (allegedly three) kings. They came knocking on doors and writing their initials in chalk on the doorframes: C+M+B. They were visiting, not for worship, but for a donation to charities. The initials were an indication that a donation had been given and that the house was “blessed.” Thankfully, the holiday was harmless enough and even a reminder that treasures given to a Christian charity can be a form of worship.
There was no trace of the Feast of Fools in modern Austria, or in modern France for that matter. The festival had gotten so immorally out of hand by the fifteenth century that there was an attempt to tame it down, and finally, to outlaw it.
A festival can be officially outlawed—fools, less easily.
Far and away from the fifteenth century, Disney media brings out the foolishness of the fools in their version of The Hunchback. ii The song titled “Topsy Turvy” contains the lines “Come one, come all! / Close the churches and the schools/ It's the day for breaking rules/ Come and join the feast of Fools! /Put your foulest features on display/Be the king of Topsy Turvy Day! /It's the day we do the things that we deplore/ On the other three hundred and sixty-four…”
To be fair to Disney, there is also a prayer (though in Latin) and a plea for mercy by La Esmeralda for the outcasts of society, as she herself is one. In her plaintive song, “God Help the Outcasts,” she asks God the question, “Were you once an outcast too?” Clearly, she is alluding to Jesus, whose unrecognized birth and brutal death on the cross marked him as a pariah of society. The movie, however, as the book, ends with the fools carrying the day, causing widespread misery and destruction. No seeking Magi were marching down those streets. The worship of the three kings of the baby King got lost in what appeared to be the counter—and prevailing—mindset of the populace. Hugo did not attempt a happy ending. Disney tries to insert one, departing from the original story. In Hugo’s classic, there was none.
What happens when worship gets lost?
While we lived in Germany, we were the delighted recipients of a uniquely German Christmas decoration called a “pyramid.” A wooden, candle-powered, three-tiered system of circular platforms surrounds a central post. On each of the tiers, carved figures of the Christmas story slowly turn as the blades above rotate with the heat of the candles. A shepherd and his sheep occupy the highest tier; below them come the three marching Magi; and on the bottom and largest tier, Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, along with some admiring shepherds and their sheep.
As I sit in our darkened living room Christmas after Christmas, gazing at our turning, candle-lit Pyramide, it is the three kings that hold my attention. They have determined looks on their faces, precious gifts in their hands, and they are incessantly (since they are going in circles!) marching toward their goal. We know very little about their journey in real life, except that it was long and possibly torturous and even dangerous. It was also, to onlookers, a fool’s errand. All we know they had to go on was a star.
There is a reason those kings are called “wise.” They were seekers of the true king, and their object was worship. The determined look on the wooden figures’ faces implies (to me) that they will not be impeded or dismayed in pursuit of their goal. The Magi were determined enough to ask a possibly divisive question of the despotic king, Herod. Fearing that his reign might be threatened, he frantically searched the prophecies to find out where this supposedly rival king, the Christ, was to be born. The Christ! If Herod thought this king the wise men were searching for could be the Christ, the Messiah, would he not have joined the search, also to worship? Instead, in his fury, he killed all male babies in the region under the age of two—one of which may just grow up and usurp his throne! Even though that one may be the long-awaited Messiah.
Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard’s quote, begun above, sums up Herod’s (or anyone’s) self-deception: “There are two ways to be fooled: one is to believe what isn’t true, the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” Herod’s refusal to believe the prophecies showed him to be a fool.
When worship gets lost, we ourselves get lost. We lose one of the central purposes of our humanity. We were made to worship God, Creator of the universe and everything in it. Anything less leads to futility.
The “Wise Men” showed themselves to be wise. The gospel writer Matthew reports, “When [the wise men] …saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And…they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him…” iii
The feast of fools was not a feast of joy.
Still, today, we have the choice between two feasts, one of worship, one of joyless futility.
Worship, in fact, brings joy.
And true worship imparts true wisdom.
i Søren Kierkegaard, from Works of Love, trans. 1962
ii American animated musical drama film produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation and released by Walt Disney Pictures, 1996
iii Matthew 1:10, 11