26 December 2010

Día de los Santos Inocentes - Christian or Pagan tradition?

Several years ago when we were visiting Alcalá just after Christmas I went to the local shop to buy some flour.  "I´m sorry", explained Jacinta, "I can´t sell eggs or flour today.  It´s the day of the Holy Innocents."  Scratching my head at what appeared to be yet another bizarre Catholic custom I went home flourless.

It wasn't until I returned to England and asked my Spanish teacher that I found out what this was all about.  El Día de los Santos Inocentes, 28 December, is Spain´s equivalent to April Fool´s Day.   As the long school holidays drag on, the gap between visits from Papa Noel on Christmas Eve and the Three Kings on 6 January is filled by the opportunity for children to play jokes, known as inocentadas, on their elders and betters - some of which involve eggs and flour.  Other less messy pranks include sticking a cutout paper figure or monigote on someone´s back without them knowing, or putting salt in the sugar bowl.

According to the Gospel of St Matthew, King Herod of Judea ordered the execution of all male children in Bethlehem so as to avoid losing his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Three Wise Men. This became known as the Massacre of the Innocents.  The infants, claimed as the first Christian martyrs, were known as Holy Innocents because they were too young to have committed sin.  (Which is why, two thousand years later, victims of inocentadas must not get angry or punish the perpetrators.)

During the Middle Ages, as so often happened, Christian customs and traditions merged with pagan ones and the Día de los Santos Inocentes became an event where children dressed up in costume and went round their neighbours´ houses singing loudly and asking for cakes and sweets.  This custom, known as pedir al aguinaldo, has largely been replaced now in Spain  by Hallowe'en.  But in some places they still celebrate 28 December with acts of defiant revelry, such as the Fiesta de los Locos in Jalance, or the Flour Battle with fireworks in the streets of Ibi (Valencia).  In Setiles, Castila-La Mancha, the Devil himself makes an appearance and the children follow him around trying to pull his tail.

A common feature in these activities is the concept of role reversal, where masters must obey their servants for the day.  This, along with acts of mischief, disguise, and singing for reward, has echoes in pre-Christian winter festivals such as Yule, and Saturnalia with its Lord of Misrule.   In the Middle Ages the Christian church tried to regulate these potentially threatening activities into festum fatuorum, or Feast of Fools, a brief and controlled outlet for discontent - particularly amongst junior members of the Church itself - usually celebrated in the last week of December. Such festivals, which often included bawdy caricatures of popes and bishops, were banned by the Council of Basel in 1431, and had died out in most of Europe by the 16th century.

The Spanish media get involved in the practical jokes too, though I have yet to come across anything nearly as splendid as the BBC spaghetti harvest.  There was a small announcement in the paper last year that, because the world's clocks needed to be adjusted by one second, there would be an extra bong of the bells at midnight on New Year's Eve.   So everyone planning to follow the tradition of making a wish while eating a grape for each bong would need thirteen grapes instead of twelve ...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very helpful for a project
i had to do on this topic