Happy New Year you fools! | Dirt and Regeneration

Happy new year? Well, only if you’re from the Middle Ages, when the traditional time to celebrate new year was from around 25th March for a week. It’s thought that this might be the background to April Fool’s Day: when ‘modern’ types started celebrating new year according to the Julian calendar, they made fun of the foolish rural people who stuck to celebrating it around now in Spring time. Which is strange really, because now, when things are returning to life, seems a far better time to herald in a new year than mid-winter, when everything is basically dead. However, the connection between ‘foolishness’ and the turn of the year goes back to Roman times itself, with the Saturnalia. This was a little like the Roman Christmas, with gifts exchanged, families meeting and people drinking too much. But there was also a powerful tradition of reversal and, although the slaves would have to cook the feast, they sat in their masters’ chairs and were served by them, politely allowed to call them names too. This festival of reversal was carried on into the early Christian calendar with the Feast of Fools, during which people went to church drunk, excrement was placed on the altar and boys and clowns were dressed up as priests. It was strongly opposed by the Catholic church, but continued between the 12th and 15th centuries. It’s tempting to see these temporary reversals of power and hierarchy as simple safety valves which don’t effect substantive change. But I think that’s too simplistic, and, as Lewis Hyde has argued in Trickster Makes this World, these ‘dirty carnivals’ – or TAZ’s – can open up the imagination to a different world, and begin to allow the precipitation of that more just order into the present struggle. Bringing this full circle, the location of ‘new year’ at Spring time coincides with the festival of Easter, which is itself a very ‘dirty reversal’ – God hanging cursed on a tree. And how does Paul describe this? As foolishness, of course. But this was no impotent reversal. The power of God’s foolishness was to bring about a regeneration, a ‘gift from heaven’ – which is right within the trickster tradition, as Hyde sets out. Which is all by way of saying: happy foolery this April Fools. Here’s hoping for some real dirt to be thrown around, for some grand reversals and carnival unmaskings… not to belittle or bully, but in playful hope for regeneration, for justice, for the levelling of power.