Why Spain turned a child massacre into its April Fool’s Day

Why 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
December 28th marks Holy Innocents’ Day in Spain, a day of practical jokes among Spaniards which paradoxically has a very macabre origin.

April 1st has no special meaning in Spain, in the same way as Friday 13th isn’t an unlucky day but rather Tuesday 13th. 

So, 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 (probably not this year) 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.

Photo: 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 among Christians turned into celebration. 

Painting: 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 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. ¡Viva!  

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