Dia de los Santos Inocentes

Jamon serrano
A typical tapas dish served for Dia de los Santos Inocentes. Ewan-M/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

There isn’t a holiday in Spain that doesn’t include eating tasty tapas, feasting on an enormous meal, or munching delicious sweets and Dia de los Santos Inocentes is no exception.

Origins of the Holiday

In Spain, December 28th is a day of practical jokes, similar to what we in the USA celebrate on April Fool’s Day. Dia de los Santos Inocentes – Day of the Holy Innocents is a religious holiday 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. Although the feast remains on the Catholic Liturgical calendar, today the religious aspect has been almost forgotten, and the pranks that became popular during the Middle Ages have been combined with winter festivities of pagan origin. Similar to Halloween, groups of children in towns across 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 name for this is pedir el aguinaldo. The children’s payment or aguinaldo came in the form of sweets, such as mantecados or 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 fact by making salty rather than sweet cakes in days gone by.

The Celebrations Today

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. However, unusual celebrations stemming from ancient traditions continue to be held, such as the “Flour Battle” that takes place in the streets of Ibi, Valencia and the “Crazy People’s Dance” in Jalance, also in Valencia. The most unusual celebration we know of takes place in Setiles, where the focus is on the devil and a big Spanish meal for the village’s youth:

Setiles is a tiny town in Castilla-La Mancha. According to Setiles’ website, the festival includes noisemaking the night before, mass, a dance, an auction and a man dressed as the devil – complete with horns, a goat’s beard, a wooden sword and a tail. The day is also known as “Devil’s Day” and the children follow the devil around the town all day, trying to get close enough to pull his tail. The young men of Setiles go from house to house collecting food “donations” for a feast of their own. Apparently, the “devil” helps the young people convince any reluctant townspeople to donate plenty of food including Spanish chorizo and morcilla sausages, jamon Serrano, bread and more. In the past, just 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 cordero asado or cochinillo asado is the main course.

Celebrating Simply

If you have 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 children of Setiles, or playing pranks on family, stop in at the local grocery store and pick up some Spanish chorizo and/or morcilla sausages, some slices of jamon Serrano, Spanish cheese, a fresh baguette and a bottle of Spanish wine.