Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime


Home Up Definition Types PhilosophyOfHistory Multicultural Asian Christmas Native Women Dressler Minstrel Nat Wills Clarabell Felix Adler Jim Howle Olympic Clowns Wally Boag Bill Irwin Snowberg Rone and Gigi Baseball Meadowlark Victor Borge Mombo Charlie Chaplin Chaplin Circus Banana Man ICHOF Inductees Recommend Overview Ice Skating Clowns StarsOnIce Kurt Browning

Clowning in Christmas Celebrations through the Ages

By Bruce “Charlie” Johnson, World Clown Association Historian

Although many people today consider Christmas to be a secular celebration, its roots as a religious holiday meant that it spread everywhere Christian missionaries traveled making it one of the most observed holidays world wide.  Its importance in the church calendar resulted in elaborate celebrations over the centuries.  The use of humor and clowning in those celebrations led to important innovations in the development of clowning.  It is a time for all clowns to celebrate.

Feast of Fools

By the twelfth century, Feast Days were held by the Catholic Church on the twelve days of Christmas, December 25 through January 6.  On each day a feast celebrated some aspect of Christ’s birth and childhood.  For example, January 6 celebrated the visit by the Wise Men.  Some of these days were given to minor clergy to conduct the church services, stage processions through town, and collect gifts. The day the subdeacons were in charge the celebration evolved into the Feast of Fools.  A subdeacon was elected Bishop of Fools to preside over the festivities. The subdeacons were the least important church officials so the inversion of status led to many satirical jabs at those normally in charge.  The Feast of Fools began in France and was celebrated in many ways throughout Europe .

In Beavais , France , it was called asinara festa (Feast of the Ass). It included a burlesque recreation of the Holy Families flight to Egypt . A caparisoned donkey was led at the front of a procession through town to the Church of St. Etienne . The donkey and its followers were invited inside and a Mass was said. Instead of chanting the traditional Latin responses to the Mass, the congregation brayed back, "Hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw."

The donkey inspired the most common item of apparel at the Feast of Fools, a peaked hat with two donkey ears.  (This hat was adopted by court jesters.) Other apparel reflected the day's theme of status inversion. For example, men dressed as women and lay people exchanged clothing with the clergy.

The lesser clergy violated taboos on this one officially sanctioned day of comedy. They rang the church bells improperly and sang out of tune.  They used puddings, sausages, or old shoes as censors. Describing the festival at an Antibes monastery, a writer said, "The lay brothers, the cabbage-cutters, those who work in the kitchen, occupy the places of the clergy in the church. They don the sacerdotal garments reverse side out. They hold in their hands books turned upside down, and pretend to read through spectacles in which bits of orange peel have been substituted for glass." 

One theory is that this day of sanctioned inappropriate behavior preserved order by serving as a relief valve.  People were not tempted to misbehave on the other 364 days because their desire was satisfied during the Feast of Fools.

The Feast was very popular among the minor clergy and the citizens of the cathedral towns, but those being ridiculed didn't always enjoy it.  Several Popes tried unsuccessfully to suppress it. In some localities the clergy tried to refuse to participate. In 1489, in Tournai the churchmen obtained a royal decree from Charles VIII exempting them from participating in the feast.  (Tournai is part of modern Belgium .)  In 1498, laymen kidnapped eight clergymen at Tournai, holding them hostage until one of them volunteered to be Bishop of Fools. The church's protest to the local government was unsuccessful because the town mayor was the leader of the kidnappers. The resulting legal battle between the church and town culminated in the Tournai Feast of Fools being officially abolished in 1500.

In general, the Feast of Fools survived until the Protestant Reformation in 1517. In some locations it was still occasionally celebrated into the 1600's.

When the Feast of Fools was no longer sanctioned by the church it was transformed into a secular celebration. In France, amateur fool clubs called societes joyeuses (joyful societies), were created during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. These societies held mock ceremonies in the tradition of the Feast of Fools.  (Some continued to use the name Feast of Fools for their celebrations.)  They were the first organized comedy troupes.  This means the Feast of Fools is part of the foundation for both secular and religious comedy.  The Feast of Fools was depicted in the Disney film titled “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Clown Marionettes and Mystery Plays

The early church had banned actors because of the vulgarity associated with Roman Theater .  However the medieval church recognized the educational value of theater and arts to “elevate the common people to knowledge and to show in some palpable form the eternal truths.”  They believed that people needed to “see to understand, and understand to believe.”  This was particularly true when the official language of the church was Latin, which the local citizens did not speak.  To get around the ban on actors the church used string puppets to portray the Christmas story.  Our term Marionettes, which means Little Mary, comes from these performances. 

 At first the puppets were used to act out the Nativity story while it was read from the Bible.  (A modern version of this was performed on the 1979 television special titled “John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together.”)  Over the centuries these puppet plays evolved to include other Bible stories and they were performed at festivals year round.  These became known as Mystery or Miracle Plays.  When a story included a miracle, special effects were used to recreate it.  These were the first Christian magic illusions.

 The church recognized the value of humor as an educational tool.  Little by little comic characters and scenes were introduced into the puppet plays.  The shepherds at the nativity, Noah’s wife, demons, and sinners doomed for hell were turned into comedy characters similar to clowns.  Like the Feast of Fools, these puppet plays reached the height of their development in the fifteenth and sixteenth century.  In The Art of the Puppet, Bil Baird describes a performance of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary at the Church of St. James at Dieppe in 1443.  This performance included Grimpesulais, a marionette clown, who is an extraneous impudent character mocking the action of the play.

 Once these characters were accepted, actors playing them were accepted by the church.  Plays originally performed by puppets were taken over by actors and new plays were developed.  This is how clowning was introduced into the church and is the beginning of Clown Ministry.

Gradually the Mystery Plays were gathered into collections called Cycles.  Each Cycle was developed and performed in a specific town.  As they became larger and more elaborate they were moved outside.  The set for a Mystery Play Cycle was a large open performance area, called the platea, and a row of small temporary buildings, called the mansions.  Sometimes cloud cutouts would be placed on the roofs of nearby buildings to hide the winches used to fly characters.

The Wakefield (aka Towneley) Cycle was a series of 32 plays that began with the Creation and concluded with the Last Judgment.  It was first performed in about 1450.   One of the plays was “The Second Shepherd’s Play,” performed by clowns.  It is perhaps the best known of the English Mystery Plays.

“The Second Shepherd’s Play” is about three shepherds guarding their flock on Christmas Eve. Mak, a known thief, joins them. He pretends to go to sleep. When the other three actually fall asleep, he gets up, steals a lamb, takes it home, and hides the lamb in a cradle. He returns to the field, and pretends to be asleep again. When the shepherds wake they discover a lamb is missing.  Mak announces that he has had a dream that his wife had a baby and he had better run home to check. The suspicious shepherds follow him. They search Mak's home while his wife, Gill, rocks their baby (the lamb) in a cradle. Before the shepherds leave they insist on seeing the child. They comment on how ugly the child is, and gradually realize the "child" is actually their stolen lamb. On their way back to the field, they encounter an angel who tells them of Christ’s birth. The play concludes with the shepherds going to the stable to take gifts to the Christ child.

There is humor in the actual script, especially in the scene where Mak and Gill are trying to defend their "child" from the comments of the Shepherds. However the script is just the bare bones of the plot. The original clowns fleshed out the story with humorous actions.   Although it is mainly a humorous play, it has a strong theological basis.  This five-hundred-year-old play is still used today to entertain audiences and to present a gospel message. It is excellent source material for Gospel Clown Ministry groups, and royalty free adaptations are available.

Some Mystery Play performers reached too low for their humor and the plays eventually became vulgar.  This led to the church banishing them in some locations.  They became secular in nature and were transformed into Morality Plays teaching lessons about being a good person.   They were an important step in the development of clown type characters and in comedy performances.


About 300 years after the first production of “The Second Shepherd’s Play,” another type of Christmas show was introduced that had a tremendous impact upon clowning.  That was the Christmas Pantomime popular in the British Aisles.  It is my understanding that the Christmas Pantomime debuted each year on Boxing Day, December 26.  At that time Pantomime did not have our current meaning of silent acting.  It meant actors portraying more than one character.  (In Greek “panto” means “all” and “mime” means “imitate.”)  The Christmas Pantomime grew out of the early eighteenth-century rivalry between John Weaver and John Rich, the performer/directors at two theaters near London .  Weaver and Rich introduced Commedia Del Arte characters into classic fairy tales, legends, and literature.  (Commedia Del Arte was professional comedy shows involving stock characters.  It began in Italy and spread throughout Europe during the Renaissance.)  John Rich became famous for portraying Harlequin, a character that had originated in the Commedia Del Arte.  Rich’s Harlequin was an acrobat, thief, practical joker, and a magician.  His spectacular shows included elaborate transformation scenes with the entire set instantly changing into a new location.  During Rich’s 43-year career, Harlequin was the main character and star.  In his productions, Rich introduced Pierrot and Whiteface clown as minor supporting characters played by other actors.

 Ten years after John Rich retired; Carol Delpini began performing as Pierrot at the Drury Lane Theater .  He was the first Pantomime performer to become famous for playing what we would recognize as a modern clown character in appearance.  Delpini developed a new Pantomime format.  It began with the dramatic story.  Then at a moment of crisis the original characters would be transformed into the Commedia characters and an extended comic slapstick chase would conclude the production.  In the first half of the show the principal actors wore oversized masks and breakaway outer costumes.  During the transformation they would drop their masks and outer costume down trapdoors revealing their appearance as Commedia characters.  For example, in the 1781 production titled “Robinson Crusoe: or Harlequin Friday,” Delpini played Robinson Crusoe in the dramatic part, and then transformed into Pierrot for the comic scenes.  The duo role of Friday and Harlequin was played by Guiseppe Grimaldi, Joseph’s father.

 During Joseph Grimaldi’s childhood his father trained him to become a Pantomime performer.  He learned dancing, acrobatics, and stage combat, particularly fencing.  He loved the trick transformations and would build model sets for scene changes. The young Joseph Grimaldi was cast as sprites and animals, especially cats and monkeys, in Christmas Pantomimes. 

 Joseph Grimaldi’s first appearance as a clown was in the 1800 production of “Peter Wilkins: or, The Flying World.”  That production is known for two innovations. 

 The first was that James Byrne introduced a more elegant Harlequin character that was a gentleman.  This was exemplified by his skin-tight white silk body suit covered with diamond-shaped silk patches.  This is the first time the costume we now associate with the character was worn.  Byrne’s characterization was no longer the rogue who drove the plot.  This allowed performers portraying other characters to assume the dramatic function formerly filled by Harlequin.

 Joseph Grimaldi took advantage of the opportunity and introduced his more extravagant make up and costume design in that production.  Over the next few years his Whiteface clown evolved from Harlequin’s victim into a clever rogue persecuting Harlequin and Columbine.  (Columbine was a female clown character developed in the Commedia Del Arte.)

 “Harlequin and Mother Goose; or, the Golden Egg” was the Christmas Pantomime debuting in 1806.  That production established Joseph Grimaldi as a star and he repeated it several times during his career.  As Grimaldi and Byrne became more popular other performers began copying them and the future of clowning was changed.

 The change was criticized.  During his career, Grimaldi was chastised for performing routines originated by John Rich, and thus considered more appropriate for Harlequin than for Whiteface.

 Grimaldi appeared in other types of performances during the year.  However, it was his Christmas Pantomimes and Easter Pantomimes that were the most popular.  Those productions allowed him to develop his new style of Whiteface character making him the Father of Modern Clowning.

 The Christmas Pantomime continued to evolve during the past two centuries.  The Commedia Del Arte characters and the elaborate transformation scenes have disappeared.  However, a show called a Pantomime remained an important part of celebrating Christmas in Britain .  It has been a major venue for clowns and comedians during the holiday season.  Charlie Cairoli was a twentieth century clown known for his appearances in Pantomimes.  Some of the comedy bits developed in Christmas Pantomime shows have become part of the general repertoire used by British clowns.  I have seen clowns perform Pantomime inspired bits at the two WCA conventions in England , the WCA convention in Scotland , and a festival sponsored by Clowns International.

 Comedy and clown type characters have been a part of Christmas celebrations for over 600 years.  The clowns contributed to the joy of the celebration.  In return the celebrations contributed to the development of clowning.

(This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of Clowning Around, published by the World Clown Association.  For more information on the World Clown Association, go to World Clown Association

Copyright 2009 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson.  All rights reserved.

 Home Index