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The Strange Tradition Where People Dress Up As Demons and Jump over Babies

Gonzalo Herrera

Gonzalo Herrera

The annual tradition is supposed to relinquish the babies' sins and protect them from all kinds of ailments—especially hernias.

All photos by Rodrigo Mena

This article originally appeared on VICE Spain.

Once a year, in the small northern Spanish town of Castrillo de Murcia, a man dressed as a yellow demon jumps over a bunch of local babies. It functions as a sort of baptism, supposedly cleansing the babies—all born in the previous year—from sin and protecting them from disease. This tradition is called "El Colacho," and it has been celebrated annually since 1621, on the Sunday following the Feast of Corpus Christi—about 60 days after Easter.

Like so many other European traditions, El Colacho's pagan origins have been restyled into a Christian rite. The day of the celebration starts with a procession that includes the costumed demons, the Catholic brotherhood of the town, and the archbishop. The jump itself used to be considered the cleansing part of the ritual, but since "jumping over a baby" isn't acknowledged as an official Christian tradition, at some point Pope Benedict XVI asked Spanish priests to stop taking part in the celebration. However, the Spanish church decided to be even more closely involved. So these days, after the El Colacho demons have jumped over the babies, the archbishop of Burgos (the town's province) follows up by actually blessing them with holy water—thus giving the ritual some Catholic authenticity.

I spoke to photojournalist Rodrigo Mena, who shot this year's El Colacho celebration in the last weekend of May.

VICE: How did you find out about El Colacho?
Rodrigo Mena: I live in Madrid now, but I was raised in Burgos. I saw reports on El Colacho on the local news every year growing up, but I've never had the chance to actually visit Castrillo de Murcia until this year. I was in Burgos anyway, so I decided it would be a good opportunity to see it for myself, instead of on local TV.

Do you know why it's called "El Colacho"?
Nobody I spoke to could tell me for certain where the name came from. The people in town told me it could refer to the horsehair whip the demon carries in one hand, which he uses to flog people who insult him. Traditionally, he's dressed in a suit and a mask with striking colours, and holds that whip in one hand and castanets in the other.

What's the ritual about? What's the point of having a a man jump over a mattress dotted with babies?
El Colacho is the incarnation of the devil—he jumps over the babies to purify them, to protect them from all kinds of ailments and conditions—especially hernias.

Are there people who oppose this particular way of celebrating?
I didn't see anyone protesting, if that's what you mean. It rained pretty heavily that day, but the whole town came out to celebrate.

Would you say it's a dangerous tradition?
I understand that two guys dressed as demons jumping over babies may seem a bit worrying for people who witness it for the first time, but it's not dangerous or controversial at all. This tradition dates back to 1621, and there has never been a single accident with the babies. This was the first year I saw it live, and when you're there, it's clear that El Colacho jumps far enough not to step on the babies.

How do the parents feel about it?
This year El Colacho jumped over around a hundred babies. It's a very important tradition to their parents, especially for those who are strongly linked to the community of Castrillo de Murcia. The babies were dressed to the nines, and their parents looked so happy. The ritual is mostly for them: getting the mattress ready, the jump, seeing their babies being blessed by the archbishop.

I saw that some people hang blankets from their balconies. Why is that?
They hang sheets, tablecloths, or white fabric from their balconies as a symbol of purity, to chase away the devil. You'll also find that some mattresses have a small altar next to them, decorated with flowers and religious imagery. This year, the heavy rain was a bit of a damper on the celebrations, but once the sun came out, it shed a gorgeous light onto the bright white blankets and sheets.