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How Spain turned a child massacre into its April Fool's Day

Alex Dunham
Alex Dunham - [email protected]
How Spain turned a child massacre into its April Fool's Day
Medieval painting of the massacre of children in Bethlehem ordered by King Herod, at Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Siena, Italy. Photos: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro/Wikimedia

April 1st has no special meaning in Spain, instead December 28th is the day of practical jokes among Spaniards. But the celebration's macabre origins are far from a laughing matter.


Unless you’ve lived in Spain or another Spanish-speaking country, the chances are that you’ve never heard of December 28th being El Día de los Santos Inocentes (Holy Innocents’ Day).

This is Spain’s April Fool’s Day - pranks or inocentadas take place all over the country, there are spoof reports on Spanish television programmes (less so in recent years) and there’s even an annual charity event called “Gala Inocente, Inocente”.


Hurling eggs at friends or passers-by is also quite common on this day. The Alicante town of Ibi steals the show in this regard every year thanks to its mock coup d’état and edible projectiles.

Els Enfarinats festival in Ibi has Spain's most famous prank festival on December 28th. Photo: Jaime Reina/AFP

Other villages and town have their own take on it, such as the Fiesta de los Locos (Day of the Mad) in Jalance in Valencia, but a common theme with this celebration in both Spain and Latin American countries is children.

That’s largely because Holy Innocents’ Day has biblical origins, and gruesome ones at that.

The day marks the Massacre of the Innocents as depicted in the New Testament, when Herod ordered the murder of all children in Bethlehem under the age of two, fearing that the newborn Jesus Christ everybody was talking about as the Messiah would replace him as King of Judea.

Historians aren’t sure about whether this truly happened, but at some point during Medieval times, the mourning for this infanticide turned into celebration among Christians. 

Painting depicting the "Massacre of the Innocent" by Nicolas Poussin, 1629.

Even religious clergy took part in these festivals where jokes, crossdressing and excesses took over towns (including the Feast of Fools in France).

The Vatican tried to have the revelry banned but couldn’t stop it from living on in Spain, leading the Church to accept it as normal practice on Holy Innocents’ Day.

Some historical sources say the pranking ritual could’ve come as a result of the Romans’ Saturnalia celebration, which also took place at the end of year.

One of the traditions involved a member of the pleb or a slave being chosen as a temporary Caesar.

As Saturnalia king, they could give comical orders that had to be followed by their subjects, with the aim being to create a chaotic and absurd world.


Even if the exact origins of pranking on Holy Innocents’ Day cannot be established, it’s likely a similar story to that of so many other slightly bonkers celebrations in Spain.

It starts off as a solemn religious celebration, throw in a bit of Medieval ale and paganism (and unfortunately, often a heavy dose of animal cruelty) and 500 years later you have a day that’s an excuse for Spaniards to have a good time and celebrate.


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