When you ask 17-year-old Estafania Gonzalez about the time her parents laid her down on a mattress in the middle of the town square for a man dressed as the devil to jump over her, the details might get a little hazy.
“It was good although I can’t remember it because I was a baby,” she coolly tells me in an interview conducted in Spanish.
Maybe it’s for the best that she doesn’t. If it weren’t for the event’s holy Catholic ties, this could be the sort of thing that haunts you for years.
At the El Colacho festival in Castrillo de Murcia, Spain, the discordant clanging of church bells overhead and a single foreboding drum can’t hush the wails of infants dressed in their laciest bonnets and softest onesies.
Parents tenderly coo and cradle, but not much can be done. What’s seen cannot be unseen. After more than seven hours of preparatory festivities leading up to the main event, the babies know what — or rather, who — is coming. It’s time for a dance with the devil.
Getting myself into something
Prior to leaving for Europe, when curious friends asked me to rattle off the festivals I’m attending this summer, I’d always say something along the lines of, “Oh you know, Running of the Bulls, La Tomatina, a baby-jumping festival … ” I could never get farther in my list without first clarifying what I meant by “baby-jumping.”
“Like, a festival where a bunch of babies jump?” some would ask.
No, no sillies, that wouldn’t make much sense, now would it? Babies don’t have the motor skills for that.
I only confused them more when I went into further explanation. The only fact I could really offer up is that families in this tiny Spanish village cleanse their children of original sin and protect them against childhood illnesses by having a man dressed as the devil, or “El Colacho,” leap over them. The ceremony falls on the same week as their baptism.
To be honest, I didn’t know much more than that. For a festival that’s been around since 1621, not much information can be gleaned from the web aside from a sparse Wikipedia page and the same wire story.
With a population of about 300 people, Castrillo de Murcia isn’t exactly a happening place. There are no hotels, no markets. The village used to have a school when there were actually enough children who lived there. Nowadays, a book cart will occasionally pop by in the summer to provide some entertainment.
The village is located in northern Spain, about 19 miles away from Burgos as the crow flies. On Corpus Christi Sunday, the only ways to get there are by taxi or by rental car, the latter of which is out of the question for someone who doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift.
Terrified of what I was getting myself into, I obsessively emailed the owner of my Burgos hostel asking if he had any tips about getting to the festival or knew of anyone else going.
Even he had never heard of it and only had so much advice to offer. “We can find you a taxi to get there, but don’t forget you’ll need to get back,” he wrote.
(I envisioned El Colacho to be a testament to my capabilities as a solo-traveler. If I could make to and from Castrillo de Murcia alive, I could survive anywhere else.)
Of course, the hostel owner didn’t know of anyone else going either. That is until an Italian photographer, who was also staying in my hostel, said he was going, too.
I was relieved to have company for the day and not to be slapped with an $136 cab fare for a round-trip ride. I learned later we’d be among only a dozen or so other non-Spaniards attending the event.
From the moment we arrived to the town, I felt as though my presence was a surprise to locals. Wearing jeans, Nike sneakers and mammoth of a camera bag strapped across my body, I clearly didn’t know what I’m getting myself into.
But I don’t have much time to be self-conscious about my laughably textbook American appearance. As black birds loom overhead, I begin to hear the beat of single drum, its pulse stirring whoever could hear it into frantic shuffle out of its way.
Then, a canary yellow figure appears. Its mask features a menacing black smile, furrowed brow and two red circles dotting the cheeks. He has no eyes and holds a whip in his hands. I swear I’ve seen this guy in a nightmare before.
It’s 11:30 a.m. and El Colacho and La Cofradía, or the church’s black-cloaked brotherhood, make one of the first of many saunters around the village.
El Colacho lunges forth, repetitively swatting at those who taunt where it hurts most, and he does not care if takes out a few openly fearful and innocent bystanders either.
Wise village elders scatter out of the way.
Local teenagers with their surging testosterone linger a little longer, pushing their luck and El Colacho’s patience.
“El Colacho está boracho,” they shout, playfully accusing the masked figure of being drunk.
As for me, I just run.
But American Amy de la Fuente, whose husband is originally from the village, tells me the taunts are all a part of the fun. She took me under her wing after spotting my reusable water bottle, very American.
“There are certain chants they will say, so basically it’s kind of like, ‘Na-na-nana-nah, you can’t get me,'” de la Fuente says, who lives in Chicago, Ill. but visits Spain with her family every year.
“You see how close you can dance to him and how fast you can run away before he gets you.”
A family affair
As a fellow American, I’m fascinated by de la Fuente’s love for the festival. When her children, now 11 and 9, were babies, she made it very clear to her husband that she, too, wanted them to be jumped by El Colacho.
De la Fuente said the festival provides her the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than herself. She believes traditions can sometimes get watered down in the United States.
“I feel like with my heritage, I didn’t grow up with my mom’s side of the family, so when we went to visit, there were things that we did. But because we didn’t visit all the time, it was just occasional,” she says.
“And with my dad’s side of the family, there wasn’t really any tradition.”
Was she scared before El Colacho jumped over her children? A tiny bit, but her husband’s aunts reassured her that no baby had been injured in all of its history.
In fact, everyone I asked about injuries at the festival was proud to reiterate that fact.
“No, nunca ha pasado.”
When I’ve mentioned the festival to those who have never heard of it, they sometimes have scoffed at the seemingly reckless disregard for health and safety regulations.
In recent years, even Pope Benedict XIV has encouraged Spanish Catholic leaders to not become involved with the festival.
But to those who have been partaking for years, the day’s rituals still hold deeply religious meaning entrenched in greater family bonds.
Estephania Gonzalez’s younger brother, 16-year-old Carlos Gonzalez, is finally getting his chance to play devil, a goal held among many of the younger local boys.
It’s his first year dressing up as El Colacho, and he can’t wipe the smile off his face now that he’s among a rank of men wearing the notorious yellow mask.
Though he can’t jump over the babies until he’s older, he seems content enough running about the streets in a deviant manner while whipping revelers with his hand broom. And he’s is learning what it takes to be a good Colacho, if there can be such a thing:
“Well, he is tall, fast and drinks lots of milk.”
He just has to look to those born before him if he’s in need of pointers. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather have played the role as El Colacho, his mother, Marife Gonzalez, says.
In many ways, I begin to feel as though I’m a part of the Gonzalez family, the de la Fuente family and all the families I speak with.
After learning that I only brought a bag of peanuts to satiate my growling stomach, Amy de la Fuente invites me into her father-in-law’s home to make me a sandwich.
Though I’m sure she would say a croissant filled with cold cuts and cheese is nothing, it’s the closest I’ve gotten to home-cooked meal in the five weeks I’ve been traveling. In this moment, it tastes like the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten.
And as my tongue messily fumbles over my interview questions, those I converse with in Spanish with answered me with a great amount of patience despite the language barrier.
Following the day’s earlier pageantry and church service, the village settles down for a mid-afternoon siesta, and I retreat to the fleeting shade to wait three hours for the festivities to continue.
All at once, Castrillo de Murcia springs to life again as women hang their finest linens outside their balconies and adorn them with roses. Originally a pagan festival, the people have sought to make it a more consecrated, Catholic one.
Four mattresses dressed in pastel sheets appear in the town square, and the crowd is abuzz with excitement. Soon, the babies are set in their places. They can wiggle all they want, but they won’t get far.
After taking pictures with their children to commemorate the moment, parents retreat to the sidelines with the exception of a couple of mothers who can’t will their bodies to leave the bedside of their babies.
After another few beats of a drum, quiet falls over the crowd. Before your mind can process that the jump, known as “El salto,” is about to happen, it does.
Two colachos this time take running leaps from the staircase descending from the churchyard, heading right towards the babies. Their sneakers, a blur against the pavement. Their masks, off — thank God.
It is believed that as the colachos make mighty leap after leap, so do the evil spirits from the souls of the babies.
There aren’t any gasps from the crowd, only cheers with every successful jump. Within seconds, it’s over. Make that 393 years without an injury. To anyone who comes to this festival year after year, it comes as no surprise.
Girls recently confirmed into the church throw petals over the babies, and the priest blesses each of them.
To the American eye, the festival seems strange, yes. But for the people of Castrillo de Murcia, El Colacho is just a day in the life, a day that recognizes just how fleeting, sacred — and yes, odd — this very life can be.