Holy Innocents Day, when a tragedy turns into a joke

The 28 December marks the day when Catholic churches remember the children killed on Herod’s orders, the first victims of Christianity The relationship between the practical jokes played on this day and the story about the children is believed to be based on the tricks that parents had to play to protect and keep their children away from the men Herod had sent after them. However, besides the commemoration of this New Testament tragedy, the festival has more complex pagan origins that parallel the old Roman Saturnalia: part of the festivities celebrating the inversion and transgression of the winter cycle, which begin with the Feast Day of St Nicholas and end with Carnival.

One of the festival’s best-known features are its “llufas” (paper dolls), which, while on the wane these days, are still an icon. They were traditionally made with cabbage leaves, rabbit skin and other organic rubbish, but once their role began to expand those that were shaped like people became increasingly popular. “Llufas” were the star features of the practical jokes traditionally made by children out in the street. It was common to see groups of children, on 28 December, running around trying to stick “llufas” on the backs of pedestrians, ringing people’s doorbells, throwing stink bombs etc.

What is more, given that Holy Innocents’ Day is a role-reversing festival, servants knew they were able to do things that day which they were forbidden to do during the rest of the year. But these kinds of practical jokes have vanished now that children no longer spending their free time in the street, and an important part of the festival has been lost. A very similar phenomenon can be seen with the Midsummer Night’s Eve: servants played a key role in this part of the festival, when they took over the street to play their games in, a role that has disappeared and which no one else has replaced.

Still, there are areas where some practical jokes have survived. The media still give out news items on 28 December that are false and comical, inviting readers and audiences to spot them. And the ever-growing social networks provide a large breeding-ground for such pranks. In fact, they are so popular that they even have their own name: ‘tecnoinnocentades’ (techno-pranks). Thanks to the anonymity and viral spreading that Facebook and Twitter provide, jokes can really take off and confound everyone. But that’s the funny thing about Holy Innocents’ Day, isn’t it?