The church bells rang, and the ominous thud of a bass drum echoed from inside the nave. There had been a thunderstorm but an hour before, and large murky puddles lingered in the streets. The air was cold for the end of May and smelled of manure from the fields that surrounded the village.
“The parade is starting, hurry!” shouted a local man.
Some thousand spectators crowded the church’s entrance and lined the stairs that led to the town’s main square. Young children, wrapped-up like rolls of carpet, and sodden parents, shivering in their summer clothes, watched as the smoke from the incense meandered from the dark interior of the church. From behind this haze, men in long black cloaks and top hats hovered over the threshold, and the bejewelled robes of a bishop glinted amid the gloom.
In the main square and the streets below, people were hurriedly laying down mattresses in long lines. On to these mattresses, they placed their screaming babies, whispering prayers into their ears for good luck.
Then, from the darkness, the knock of a castanet cut across the rhythm of the drum. ” The Colacho is coming,” whispered the woman next to me. And from the church’s interior, two men dressed in red and yellow jumpsuits walked into the daylight. They carried large castanets and long whips made from horse hair. On their faces, they wore yellow masks, with long straight noses, black eyes and engorged black lips. The Devils had arrived.
I was in Castrillo de Murcia, a small village of 275 inhabitants, located 41km from the city of Burgos, to see a festival called El Salto del Colacho, or The Jump of the Colacho. This festival is a five-day-long celebration of pagan origin and may have initially started as a fertility ritual. “Some say the Colacho’s castanet is representative of the vagina and his whip the penis,” said Angel Dueñas, a local aficionado, “But no one knows when it started.”
Since the 17th century, however, the event has been associated with the Catholic church. In 1621 a newly formed Cofradía, a religious brotherhood that organises the festival, rewrote its narrative as a Christian fight against evil. Now, the festival falls on the Feast of Corpus Christi and tells the story of devout villagers warding off the wickedness of the colacho, the devil incarnate, with the strength of their faith.
“The colacho tries to stop all acts that the locals organise to express their devotion to God,” Jose González, a former colacho, told me as we watched the march. During five days of festivities he interrupts mass, mimics the priest and chases the local children around the village, scaring them with his whip. In return the local children tease him, the adults insult him and the village wards away his evil with religious ceremonies, songs and prayer. The jumping of the babies on the Sunday evening signifies the colacho’s final defeat. “When the Christian faithful of the village chase the devil from its streets,” added González.
We looked on as the two colachos made their way from the church into the square. They were followed by the black-caped representatives of the cofradía (the organising committee), the drummer, the archbishop and a group of priests dressed in white. As the senior colacho reached the bottom of the steps he broke off from the group and approached the first mattress. Gently, he ran the hair of his whip across the faces of the babies in an effort to calm them.
The idea, Dueñas explained, is that when the colacho jumps over the mattresses he takes with him his malice and evil and leaves the children their innocence. The colacho retreated, beating his castanet with the handle of his whip. Then, with a sudden lunge, he ran towards the first mattress and leapt over the babies’ heads.
The crowd winced, cameras flashed, but the babies cried as before, oblivious to the events happening around them. The colacho jumped again until he had cleared four sets of infants and reached the other side of the square. Then, as the priests blessed the babies, he disappeared from the plaza, making his way towards the 40 more newborns lying on mattresses in the streets below, and thence his eventual escape.
Neither health and safety officials nor Pope Benedict XVI, who spoke out against the festival citing its pagan values as un-Christian, have been able to stop the celebration. This has no doubt been aided by the fact that there are no reports of any babies ever having been harmed by the colacho’s leap. Nevertheless organisers have to some extent acquiesced to today’s more risk-averse times. In the last few years, the participants have begun jumping the width of the mattress and not, as they had over the previous centuries, over its full length.