Now the peaceful Cat Parade, once the terrible Cat Throwing

13 May 2018
Ypres

The commemoration ceremonies to do with 1914-1918, have mainly put the gruesome war history of Ypres and its surroundings in the spotlight. However, once upon a time in the West-Flemish front-line city, everything revolved around the...cat.

To commemorate this, the Cat Parade comes around every three years and on Sunday 13 May 2018, already for the 45th time. It’s a dazzling spectacle, each time with various new floats, giants, music bands, theatre and dance groups. The cat in history, in language and in legend, around the world, and Ypres as a historical city, are all evoked.

Did you know that this popular animal-friendly city event originated from a completely barbaric practice? Just like many Flemish cities, Ypres was an important cloth-making city in the Middle Ages. Cats were used to keep the halls, where the cloth was stored for the annual market, free of mice and rats. That worked out nicely but apparently in addition to the hunt, they gave in to their desire to reproduce such that the city regularly struggled with a surplus of cats. It was judged that the problem could be tackled by simply throwing them down from the approximately 70-metre high belfry tower. That happened on so-called Cat Wednesday. ‘One swings her from high halls, such as the one in Ypres city, but she will still land on her paws because a cat is always a cat’ is the chorus of the very first cat song. This practice took place with shorter and longer intervals, certainly since the 15th century up until 1817. The city records from the years 1410-1420 mention it for the first time. The cat throwing came to an end in 1817 when a specimen landed alive on its paws and then swiftly disappeared without leaving a trace. Now, don’t go treating the people of Ypres as executioners. In the Middle Ages, the cat had a bad reputation anyhow. They were considered an evil spirit who, like witches, had to be killed. Everywhere in the country - not just in Ypres - cats were burnt or clubbed to death in all kinds of folk games.

Since 1817, luckily, our meowing roommates no longer have to fear the Ypres belfry tower, unless they are the stuffed toy kind. From 1817 until the First World War, only the carillon was played on Cat Wednesday. In 1938, something like a cat parade took place. The city jester climbed the belfry tower to throw down stuffed animals, along with white and red paper shreds. There was a break during the Second World War, but in 1946 the practice was resumed. In 1955, the first big Cat Parade became a fact, a resounding success, and in 1957 even the late King Baudouin came to watch. In the 1960’s the first Cat Queen was chosen. That happened by throwing a cat into the audience. Whoever caught it would be queen for one year. Otherwise, there have been few major changes over the years.

Shall we end with a fun anecdote? Once, the Cat Parade went out on a bitter-cold day. Queen Freya at the time, had climbed up to her throne with a ladder, but after the parade, the men who pulled her chariot were in a big rush to warm up with a drink. So rushed even, that they had completely forgotten their queen on her throne.