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Day of the Innocents: A trickster’s paradise

December 28, 2014

Years ago, a few days after Christmas, a friend called and in the course of the conversation asked if we’d heard that Fidel Castro had died.

It hadn’t been reported on the early news, and, remember, this was 2005, when Castro was still hale and hearty.

There was nothing on the newsbreaks during the day, or on the midday news, and nothing on the Internet that we could find. That seemed strange; whether you love Castro, hate him or couldn’t care less, he makes news.

Later in the day, I went to visit some friends near Alajuela, northwest of San José. They, too, were surprised at the demise of Castro. They reported it to a neighbor, who hadn’t heard anything either.

Reality hit as the day wore on. It was Dec. 28! Innocents’ Day.

Innocents’ Day goes back to the biblical story of King Herod, who killed all the babies in Judea but was tricked by the Holy Family who fled to Egypt.

During the Middle Ages in Spain and other countries, it became a day of tricks and practical jokes, sort of like April Fools’ Day on April 1. The custom is not as common now, but in Costa Rica, every year San José’s Simón Bolívar Zoo gets calls for “Señor León” and “Ella Fante.”

Most tricks are mild and truly innocent. A coin is glued to the sidewalk and everyone tries to pick it up. A ¢1,000 bill on the ground is attached to a thread and jerked out of reach when you try to enrich yourself. A gift-wrapped package on your desk at work turns out to be an empty box. You’re told to meet someone on the corner at 3 p.m. and at 4 p.m. realize you’ve been tricked.

On the more serious side, the man at the store may toss you a bag of eggs, or someone may snatch a bag of potato chips right out of your hand. Or all the benches in the park are bedecked with “wet paint” signs.

On the horrible side, one year at the year-end festival in Zapote, southeast of San José, some demonic-minded person threw a big rag doll from the top of the roller coaster, leaving the crowds screaming. Because the camera crew from a leading TV station was there to film it, they were suspected of being part of the plot.

Even the mighty get caught, as one major newspaper did when it printed a false obituary that came in just at deadline on Dec. 28.

Is it possible for an entire village to be fooled on Innocents’ Day? It happened when a truck went up the road around noon with a sound system announcing a collection of bottles, cans and newspapers for recycling. This is a common charity activity, so in every house folks gathered up their bottles, cans and paper and hauled it all out to the road expecting that the truck would pass through villages farther up the road and come back. It never returned, and late in the afternoon the entire village, feeling foolish, retrieved their bottles, cans and papers and stuffed them back into storage.

It was Dec. 28.

Originally published Dec. 22, 2006.

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