THE CHEEK OF IT
You’d think that jumping over babies or running around town in your nightshirt would get you locked up – but not so in Europe, where such quirky traditions are positively encouraged. JR Daeschner reports
The mayor’s warning is as strange as it is serious. “You’d better put that notebook away,” he mutters darkly. “Otherwise, people will think you’re an ecologista.” An ecologist? Frankly, I’ve been called worse.
But in the pueblo that gave the world Goat Tossing, being mistaken for an animal-rights activist could get you run out of town by assorted pitchfork-toting rustics. In this red-dirt village in northern Spain, “ecologist” is synonymous with any number of epithets involving one’s mother, or privates, or both.
For it was the ecologists, particularly a long-haired animal lover from Liverpool, who cost this village its tradition. And poor Manganeses de la Polvorosa has yet to bounce back from the loss of its Goat Throw, which consisted of chucking a live goat from the church belfry and catching it in a tarpaulin below.
The ill-fated fiesta was just the beginning of my quest to venture beyond the usual tourist traps, and explore the flip side of modern Europe.
Although Goat Tossing has been banned, I was surprised to find that an event nearby involving a very different kind of “kid” was still going strong. Every summer, the village of Castrillo de Murcia puts its future at risk in one of the world’s most bizarre blessing ceremonies. Dozens of infants born the previous year are laid out on mattresses in the streets, while the priest and his entourage shuffle through the village.
Then, amid clouds of prayer and incense, a couple of men dressed as devils, in running shoes, take running leaps through the baby obstacle course, knowing full well that landing just a few inches short could be catastrophic.
The official line on Baby Jumping is that it’s a religious event coinciding with the Catholic festival of Corpus Christi. However, it’s not entirely clear what Jesus would think about exposing babies to leaping devils, so the more common conclusion is that the Fiesta del Colacho (Festival of the Devils) dates back to the pagan Celtic Iberians.
“It’s a fertility rite,” an organiser aptly named Angel assures me. But I don’t get it, I tell him. The local population is barely 250 and falling. How does endangering newborns improve the town’s fertility?
He waits patiently for my lips to stop flapping. “It’s a fertility rite.” That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it. Oddly, the only group that has ever opposed Baby Jumping has been the Church itself – not because it involves jumping over babies, but because it features the Devil as part of the proceedings.
Given the obvious dangers, I had expected the mattresses to be shorter than average – baby-sized, even – with just a single row of infants scrunched towards the front, where they’d be less likely to get squashed. Yet, these are full-sized, six-foot-long mattresses, big enough to hold three babies – in not one, but two rows, so that the kids at the back are only inches from touchdown when the Colacho lands (hopefully) on the other side.
Not only that, but the mattresses stand at least 25cm high. If the babies roll off, it’s a straight drop to the tarmac. “Every once in a while a baby will roll off and bump its head, but it doesn’t hurt them,” an elderly señora tells me. And if it does, well, every village needs an idiot.
Thankfully the head devil, Rafael Benito, is a veteran baby jumper. “The way I look at it is that nothing has ever happened before, so why should it happen to me?” he explains.
There’s always a first time. But this year isn’t it. After Rafael and his sidekick clear all the mattresses successfully, I get to talking with a couple of mothers. Ana has four other children, but two-month-old Nicolás is the first to have been blessed by the Colacho.
“I wasn’t going to put him there, but when we came here, I thought, why not?” she says. “There was a moment when the Colacho’s foot barely cleared my baby’s head, and I thought he was going to be aplastado.” Ana’s hands are full with Nicolás, so Isabel mimes it for her, by smashing her fist into her palm. “Some of those babies were dressed up like they were going to a wedding,” her friend laughs. I mention to Ana that her son looks pretty well turned out, too. “Oh, those are just his ordinary, everyday clothes,” she says, her face irony-free. “In Spain, we take very good care of babies.”