Among the Christmas cards that have been arriving in our mailbox during the past few weeks there is the usual mixture of Santa Clauses, snow scenes and nativity scenes. I particularly like the crib scenes that show the ox and the ass up close to baby Jesus in the manger and a shepherd or two accompanied by young sheep. The animals have been waiting patiently in our own crib since the beginning of Advent.
Sheep, of course, take pride of place in the Bible; Jesus himself is called the Lamb of God. Oxen are there, too, in the background, but the donkey has a few star turns, notably at the birth of Christ and at his triumphal entry into Jerusalem prior to his passion and death.
The humble beast that carried Mary and the unborn Saviour to Bethlehem and helped to warm the stable of the nativity belonged to a race domesticated from the African wild ass some three thousand years before. These sturdy little animals played a key role in the advance of civilisation in the Middle East. Joseph must have owned one to help him cart raw materials and finished goods for his trade, as well as for journeys such as the one to Bethlehem. The subsequent flight into Egypt and the return journey would have been impossible unless the holy family owned their own beast. One can imagine this privileged animal being very well looked after, and the child Jesus, in more settled times, enjoying many donkey rides.
Useful and companionable as they are, donkeys also have a reputation for being stupid and stubborn. Generations of humans have abused one another with the epithets “asinine”, “silly ass” and “stubborn as a mule”. Donkey lovers say this notoriety is unfair, that donkeys are actually very intelligent and that their alleged stubbornness simply arises from a strong sense of self-preservation when they are pushed too hard.
In the Bible the prophet Balaam’s ass proves more perceptive than her owner, who cannot see the angel of the Lord in their path and therefore beats her when she turns aside. “Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?'” (Num 22:23-28).
The Christian populace of earlier times found the talking ass irresistible; it featured prominently in some medieval celebrations surrounding Christmas and incorporating saturnalian elements harking back to midwinter pagan festivities. A celebration of the Flight into Egypt on January 14th, which started out as a liturgical drama (Processus Prophetarum) in which the Jewish and gentile prophets bore witness to Christ as the divine Messiah, became known as the Feast of the Ass because the appearance of Balaam on his (wooden/pantomime) donkey at a certain point was such a crowd-pleaser.
In Beauvais on this feast (this detail from Wikipedia is just too good to pass over) “the most beautiful girl in the town, with a pretty child in her arms, was placed on a richly draped ass, and conducted with religious gravity to St Stephen’s Church. The Ass (possibly a wooden figure) was stationed at the right of the altar, and the Mass was begun. After the introit a Latin prose was sung.” The first stanza translates as follows:
…“From the Eastern lands the Ass is come, beautiful and very brave, well fitted to bear burdens. Up! Sir Ass, and sing. Open your pretty mouth. Hay will be yours in plenty, and oats in abundance.”…
Mass was continued, and at its end, apparently without awakening the least consciousness of its impropriety, the following direction (in Latin) was observed: In fine Missae sacerdos, versus ad populum, vice ‘Ite, Missa est’, ter hinhannabit: populus vero, vice ‘Deo Gratias’, ter respondebit, ‘Hinham, hinham, hinham.‘(At the end of Mass, the priest, having turned to the people, in lieu of saying the ‘Ite missa est’, will bray thrice; the people instead of replying ‘Deo Gratias’ say, ‘Hinham, hinham, hinham.’)
Not even the most fanciful liturgical innovator in recent times has, to my knowledge, suggested hee-hawing the responses.
But it was a prophecy of Zechariah — “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” — which led to the donkey’s finest hour, celebrated in a short poem by G K Chesterton. Portraying the humble beast first as a joke of nature and the butt of human cruelty and scorn, The Donkey ends:
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
Legend has it that in return for this service to the Lord when he had need of him, God blessed the donkey with the “Jesus Stripe” — the dark stripes laid like a cross on the donkey’s back and shoulders. According to a donkey fan on some obscure website, “the educated buyer looks for it when selecting a superior animal.”
The donkey has all but disappeared in the developed world as a working animal, but its popularity as a pet or lifestyle adjunct is still growing; in other parts of the world, including China, Pakistan and Mexico, they still do mainly… donkey-work. They play a crucial role in Arab Israeli and Palestinian villages, a region where they also have a charity, Safe Haven for Donkeys, dedicated to their welfare. Set up in 2000 by Englishwoman Lucy Fensom, SHADH runs a four-acre sanctuary for sick, abandoned and abused donkeys; it also takes veterinary care to villages and teaches locals how to look after the animals. Among its patrons are the psychic Uri Geller.
Outside of the religious setting, probably the most famous donkey is the one ridden by Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s sidekick, who refers to the animal as “my rucio” or “the rucio”, an elegant (and ironic) designation of the texture of the animal’s fur, Wiki tells us. In Russia, the Mariinsky ballet uses a real donkey in productions of Don Quixote and last year pensioned off one called Monika which had played the part for 21 years. A Reuters report noted: “At her farewell party, Monika danced a waltz with one of the…ballerinas and was presented with retirement gifts of carrot cake, a pinafore and a kerchief.” It was said that she loved to perform, loved applause, and “knew the exact time to appear in the ballet, even without someone accompanying her.” So much for silly asses.
My personal acquaintance with donkeys began and ended, I’m sorry to say, with rides at school fairs in my childhood. In Britain — and, no doubt, many other places — they play a similar role at seaside resorts.
It was Englishman Eric Boswell, a physicist turned composer, who made the donkey of Bethlehem a modern legend with the popular 1959 Christmas number, Little Donkey. Boswell, who died this month at the age of 88, once said that after deciding to write a Christmas song, ”I racked my brains to think of aspects of the Christmas story that hadn’t been sung about and came up with the idea of the donkey riding into Bethlehem”. The pleasantly lilting song became a Christmas top 20 hit in 1959 for Gracie Fields and for the Beverley Sisters. In fact, Boswell had to simplify his composition so the 61-year-old Fields could sing it, and this simplicity has helped to make it a perennial favourite.
Well, that is all very interesting, I hear you saying, but what is the moral of this story? How are we to be edified by studying the donkey?
Christian writers have discovered all sorts of virtues in the donkey, but I would like to suggest three ways in which we could emulate the ass. First, we should not mind a bit of hard work. There is a certain dignity in being a beast of burden, in helping people meet their basic needs, and you never know when the load you are carrying might be critical in saving the world — one of the major preoccupations of the third millennium.
Second — and this is very relevant to the season — we could consume less. Donkeys are “easy keepers” and generally need smaller amounts of food than horses of comparable weight and height. In this way, too, they show us how to lighten the burdens of a planet groaning under the weight of human over-consumption. Their small carbon footprint could be a model for us all.
And third, we could learn from the donkey to be ourselves, even at the cost of ridicule. Beauty is all very well but comedy is important too, and the donkey’s oversized ears and hee-haw cry have brought mirth to humans down through the ages. Making an ass of oneself occasionally is something most of the human race can hardly avoid, but setting out to give others a laugh is a great service to them. Bring on the Christmas tomfoolery!
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.
* I acknowledge my debt to Wikipedia for much of the historical material in this article.