How Spain Celebrates the Holy Innocents Day

Black stone platter with slices of cured ham or Spanish jamon serrano or Italian prosciutto crudo
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The day of the Holy Innocents is a Catholic religious holiday that takes place on December 28 and is named in honor of the young children who were slaughtered by order of King Herod around the time of Jesus’ birth. These young victims were called Santos Inocentes or “Holy Innocents” because they were too young and innocent to have committed any sins. The Bible tells us that Herod, blinded by jealousy because of the arrival or the new king of Jews, committed this crime to guarantee there would be no other like himself. Although the feast remains on the Catholic liturgical calendar, today the religious aspect of it has been almost forgotten, while the pranks that became popular during the Middle Ages live on in combination with winter festivities of pagan origin.

How Holy Innocents Day Was Celebrated

As they did on Halloween, groups of children in towns all around Spain used to go from house to house asking for candy or cookies, making noise with spoons and anise bottles, and singing traditional Christmas songs. The request for food is called pedir el aguinaldo, which roughly translates as "to ask for a gift or a bonus." The children’s "payment" came in the form of sweets, such as mantecados, which are similar to sugar cookies, or crumbly almond cookies (called polvorones). This custom has faded, especially in large cities, but is still practiced in some of the smaller villages. Bakers in Spain even got into the mischievous act by making salty rather than sweet cakes in days gone by.

The Celebrations Today

The modern take on what was supposed to be a day of prayers and repentance is celebrated in Spain in different ways depending on where you are. But no matter your location on the peninsula, you will surely encounter tasty tapas, feast on an enormous meal, or munch on delicious sweets at bakeries and street stands. Holy Innocents Day is similar to April's Fools Day but much tastier as Spaniards take any opportunity to celebrate with food.

Many medium-sized cities have parades, carnivals, and even balls and fund-raising banquets to help kids in need; many others host small stands in their main squares selling food and funny playthings like wigs or masks to help people dress up for the occasion.

Today, most Spanish children play simple pranks like putting salt in the sugar bowl or sticking paper cut-outs on people's backs. These little practical jokes are called inocentadas, or "innocent jokes." However, unusual celebrations stemming from ancient traditions continue to be held, such as the “Flour Battle” that takes place in the streets of Ibi in Valencia, and the “Crazy People’s Dance” in Jalance, also in Valencia.

The most unusual celebration might take place in Setiles, where the focus is on the devil (a man dressed as such plays the part and walks around town) and a big Spanish meal for the village’s young men, which is prepared with people's food donations. The devil helps the young people convince any reluctant townspeople to give food, including Spanish chorizo and morcilla sausages, jamón Serrano, bread, and other goods. In the past, the donations were used to prepare and serve only those young men who came of age during the year, as well as the devil himself. However, today all the children of the town are invited to a big meal where either cordero asado (roasted lamb) or cochinillo asado (roasted pig) is the main course.

Embrace the Tradition

Hitting almost at the end of the year and placed between Christmas and New Year's Eve, Holy Innocents Day comes at a busy time for most. But that's no reason not to embrace this tradition and spend it with your family and friends.

If you've spent enough time in the kitchen preparing feasts this season, take a break from all that cooking and sit down to a simple Spanish dinner. Instead of convincing your neighbors to give up their food like the people of Setiles, or playing pranks on family, stop in at the local grocery store and pick up some Spanish chorizo and morcilla sausages; some slices of jamón Serrano and jamón Ibérico; honey and membrillo paste; a selection of Spanish cheeses; Marcona almonds; roasted tomatoes and peppers; Spanish olives; and fresh, crusty bread. The only prep time involves putting everything on display on a cheese platter. Then enjoy this delicious, not-so-innocent meal with a glass of Spanish wine. Finish it off it with one of these mouthwatering Spanish desserts, and salud!