The Bizarre Baptism of the Baby Jumpers

The Bizarre Baptism of the Baby Jumpers

We were half way between Bilbao and Burgos when the weather started to take a hold. The Spanish summer that, according to the Gregorian was just around the corner, dissolved into a melee of driving hail and gale-force winds, blowing our camper van off the road, forcing leaks and soaking any chance that we had of a good night’s sleep. Spain, far from being a land of flamenco and scorching beach sands, offers up numerous landscape variations and microclimates across a few hours’ drive; it’s just that this one was unpleasantly unexpected.

We’d committed to documenting 50 unique, traditional, and mostly bizarre Spanish fiestas, community-run street parties that alternatively or collectively celebrate local and/or regional pride, religious ceremonies, local produce, or everything, the only really unifying factor between the 50 parties that we’d selected being that the communities holding the parties were all in, from infants to ancients, angst-ridden teens, the high side of town, and everyone in between.

By the time we rolled into Castrillo de Murcia, about an hour out of Burgos, the late-May midday temperature was hovering around zero. Burgos is a plateau city famous for its blood sausages and infamous for the 65 people who were injured when, in 2009, Basque separatists detonated a car bomb near the Burgos police barracks. At that time I was living in Basque Country and had developed a little crush on their nationalism. This act of violent separatism seemed too far, particularly due to the civilian and child casualties, and less than a year later ETA disbanded with a ceasefire that lasts to this day. The story of the Basques is one of Spain’s, and one that we’ll tell soon enough, but our mission on this squally May day was to cover a uniquely Spanish tradition in a tiny village located square in the middle of nowhere.

The village, rimmed by uninspiring hills and presided over by wind farms, has a permanent population of less than 200, but that number had risen for the week’s festivities. The pueblo, or village, is increasingly becoming somewhere Spanish people return to for the yearly fiesta, a place where your grandparents live, and that will always feel somewhat like home, even though their ways are archaic compared to the metropolitan reality that the vast majority of Spaniards now live.

Our contact in Castrillo de Murcia was a guy called José, a thin man in his late 20s, sandy haired and taller than most Spaniards. He was to be our point of liaison with the Brotherhood of Santísimo Sacramento de Minerva, a sartorially dark, sombre group of men who organised and ran the week’s religious events. José was given the honour of being one of the El Colachos, the yellow devil-man who plays the central role in these fiestas, and if we just hung around until the hour we’d witness a slice of his ceremonial duties.

There is a well-established Spanish tradition of celebrating religious events by running away from things – bulls are an infamous example – and running from weapon-wielding young men dressed as demons is by no means unique to Castrillo de Murcia.* Nevertheless, the seriousness with which the town would taunt and then try to evade José was astounding. José, and other Colachos, would stalk the village streets, banging sticks, while flanked the Mafioso-looking members of the Brotherhood, breaking out into a sprint at random and beating his fellow villagers with a horsehair whip. This was repeated on the hour, every hour, but wasn’t the reason why we’d come to this unknown village in Spain. The main event was scheduled for Sunday, the baby jumping of Castrillo de Murcia.

The unique aspect to this village’s fiestas involves two members of the Brotherhood leaping over infants whose parents have laid them on mattresses at various points around the pueblo. José and one of his brethren walked by the often screaming infants, rubbing the horsehair whip across their tiny faces, before getting a small run up and jumping over them. There were some close-ish calls, but it never seemed like the babies were in danger of being squashed, despite the tempest that rolled through 15 minutes prior to the scheduled leaping soaking the streets and making them slippery.

The idea behind it all is that original sin is absorbed from the baby by El Colacho’s leap, a concept that was admonished by the previous pope, Bendict, who implored Spanish Catholic priests to distance themselves from the ceremony, but this is a tradition that has continued unabated since the 17th century, one that attracts parents from all over Spain who wish to have their baby’s sins absolved by this unconventional ceremony.

This presented questions about what exactly is conventional when ridding an infant of their culpability for Eve’s apple eating. How many of our parents sought to absolve us from original sin by having “holy” water splashed on our foreheads? How is that any less ridiculous than being jumped over? Sure, it seems less dangerous to be baptised with water, but we were assured that in the event’s 400-year history not one baby has been injured, due in no short part to the young men doing the leaping training hard and taking it very seriously, evidenced by Jose’s quitting cigarettes for the four months leading up to his holy leaps.

Spain’s history is a hodgepodge of nations and ethnicities that are in a constant flux of victory and defeat. The conquerors were forced to make concessions to conquered’s traditions in order for their methods of social control to take hold. All over Spain, Catholic ceremonies are infused with multiple layers of pre-Christian tradition, many of which are utterly bizarre when viewed as an outsider, but for the locals they are an imperative part of their identity. The village kids we spoke to were bristling with anticipation towards the day that they got to jump babies, and at the wine-and-cheese-soaked after party one particularly staunch member of the Brotherhood broke down into a blubbering mess, describing how his recently deceased grandfather would have loved to make another baby jumping.

But understanding these fiestas we’ve set out to document doesn’t need to lead to cultural relativism, and the notion that jumping over a baby in any way, shape, or form better equips it for life is ridiculous. As the first of 50 fiestas, El Colacho couldn’t have been a more fitting spectacle: the right amount of danger and ceremony, a community event infused with religious significance, doused in a healthy amount of wine. We left that soggy, frozen plain with the sense that the project we’d given up professions for was overwhelmingly going to be worth our while; a year spent exploring the diversity of Spain and immersing ourselves in its weird traditions.

One down, 49 to go.

* Variously across Spain, this tradition of “whip chasey” is played out with whips, pigs bladders, brooms on fire, or fire ants, and we look forward to covering some of its more extreme manifestations as we go further through the project.

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Ex-editor of Australia’s Surfing Life, current producer and host of 50 Fiestas, Barcelona resident and drinker of all the wine, every last drop of it.