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

April 1st has no special meaning in Spain, in the same way as Friday 13th isn’t an unlucky day but rather Tuesday 13th. But there is a day of practical jokes among Spaniards which paradoxically has a very macabre origin.

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

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 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. ¡Viva!  

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‘We’re strong enough’: Women bear weight of Easter ritual in changing Spain

While religious orders started allowing women to carry floats in Spain's famous Semana Santa processions 30 years ago, female "costaleros" - as float bearers are known - remain a minority who still face resistance.

'We're strong enough': Women bear weight of Easter ritual in changing Spain

On Holy Monday in the historic city of Granada in southern Spain, a team of 50 women rock rhythmically from foot to foot carrying a 1.5-tonne float topped with a statue of Jesus and Mary.

They support the weight on wooden ribs under the belly of the float as they inch forward through the city for ten hours.

A heavy velvet cloth draped over the float leaves only their white shoes visible to throngs of spectators lining the route.

The parades featuring dozens of people dressed in religious tunics and distinctive pointy hoods have returned this Holy Week after being cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic the past two years.

While religious orders started allowing women to carry floats in Spain’s famous Easter processions 30 years ago, female “costaleros” — as float bearers are known — remain a minority who still face resistance.

Women have traditionally formed the back line of the processions, playing the role of mourners dressed in stylish black dresses, embroidered veils and intricately designed hair combs.

Granada’s “Work and Light” brotherhood was among the first to allow women to carry the floats in the 1980s.

Granada’s “Work and Light” brotherhood was among the first to allow women to carry the floats in the 1980s. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

At first “it was not accepted, women were talked bad about,” said Pilar del Carpio, a 45-year-old cashier who has been a shrine bearer since she was 13 and is proud to be one of the “pioneers”.

Today only three or four of Granada’s 30 brotherhoods, which stage the processions, include women costaleras.

“Maybe there are people who think it is not normal,” said Maria Auxiliadora Canca, a 40-year driving instructor who directs a team of float bearers in Ronda, another Andalusia city in southern Spain.

“Since our bodies are capable of doing it, and we do it with conviction, I don’t see why there should be a difference.”


But in Seville, which holds Spain’s most spectacular Easter parades, there are no women float bearers even though the city’s archbishop in 2011 issued a decree to put an end to gender-based discrimination in the city’s religious orders.

Opponents claim the task is too physically demanding, “not suitable” for women.

“It’s a scandal,” said Maribel Tortosa, 23, who manages an Instagram account called “Costaleras por Sevilla” dedicated to women float bearers.

People say that it is “ugly” to see a woman wearing a “costal”, the traditional padded sack used by bearers as protective headgear, she said.

Two female float bearers “Costaleras” of the “Trabajo y Luz” (Work and Light) brotherhood hug each other after ten arduous hours of heavy lifting. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

“But under a float, you don’t see anything,” she added.

Still, the emergence of women float bearers reflects the growing push by women in Spain into traditionally male-dominated fields since the return of democracy in the 1970s.

Spain’s oldest police force, the Guardia Civil, has since 2020 been headed by a woman — a first in its 178-year history.

And since Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez came to power in 2018, women have taken up most cabinet posts for the first time in history.

‘Strong enough’

In Granada, locals are no longer surprised to see women training on the streets in the lead up to Holy Week by lifting and carrying a float loaded with bricks.

The load “weighs more every hour”, even though the shrine bearers are replaced every half hour during the “Work and Light” brotherhood’s procession, which began Monday at four pm and ended at around one am, said Rafael Perez, who heads the team of women shrine bearers.

Working with women “changes absolutely nothing. I just have to treat them with more tenderness,” said Perez.

Among the women of this religious order was Montse Ríos, 47, who has been a bearer since she was 19 and who still feels “strong enough to go under”.

Her eldest daughter joined her this week under the float, while her youngest is a “pipera”, giving water to the procession participants.

“And we don’t lack that,” she added.