Kattestoet

Kattestoet (Festival of the Cats)

Type of Holiday: Folkloric
Date of Observation: Second Sunday in May, every three years (2006, 2009, 2012)
Where Celebrated: Ypres (Ieper), Belgium
Symbols and Customs: Cats, Parade, Witch

ORIGINS

Every three years, the people of Ypres (Ieper), Belgium, host a festival celebrating cats and their role in the town's history. The festival features a cat costume PARADE , an unusual ceremony whereby toy CATS are thrown off the roof of a tall building called the Cloth Hall, and the mock burning of a WITCH in the town square.

The Kattestoet, or Festival of the Cats, got its start in the late Middle Ages. The festival's history began with the rise of Ypres as a major center of the northern European cloth trade in the twelfth century. Located between France, England, and Germany, the town of Ypres prospered by selling its cloth to people in all three countries. As the fame and wealth of the cloth merchants grew, they decided to raise a large building in the center of town to serve as the headquarters of the cloth trade. Construction began in 1260 and was completed in 1304. This building, called the Cloth Hall, included a large covered market area for cloth trading and a tall bell tower. In order to keep their looms well-stocked, the Ypres cloth merchants stored an enormous amount of raw wool and linen fiber. The wool and linen attracted mice. Cloth merchants kept cats to control the mice, but soon the cats had so many kittens that stray cats swarmed all over the city. According to some, the Kattestoet began as a means of ridding the city of the stray cats. On the last day of the town's largest yearly fair, the town jester would gather up as many stray cats as possible and take them to the top of the Cloth Hall belfry. There he would fling them off the tower to their death below. This cruel custom was last practiced in 1817. The custom was revived with modification in 1938, when stuffed toy cats were substituted for living animals.

Some people offer another explanation for the cat killing custom. They claim that Count Baudoin III, ruler of Flanders (the region in which Ypres is located), tossed several cats from his castle tower in the year 962. Local folklore linked cats to witches and pagan religious practices. Count Baudoin had recently converted to Christianity. It is said that the count killed the cats in order to show that he was not afraid of them, or of witches either.

Ypres' economy declined in the fourteenth century, due to widespread disease and military attacks. Although Ypres lost its prominence in the cloth trade, local tradition insists that the cat killing custom remained in place until the early ninteenth century.

The town of Ypres was almost completely destroyed in World War I. Undaunted, the town's citizens rebuilt the city, including the old Cloth Hall, which was reproduced according to its original design between the years 1934 and 1958. The Festival of the Cats was reinstituted as well, and new customs were added. The first cat parade was held in 1946. The parade expanded in 1955, when the towns of Metz (Lorraine), Hertogenbosch (the Netherlands), Luxembourg, and Sittingbourne (England), all of which have their own lore and legends concerning cats, were invited to attend. In 1958, festival organizers abandoned the traditional date of the event, the second Sunday in LENT, and instituted a new date: the second Sunday in May. The contemporary festival also features a mock witch burning.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Cats

For hundreds of years, European folk legends and beliefs have linked cats with witches and occult practices. For this reason, many people feared cats, and folk customs permitted or encouraged people to harm and even kill them. The Ypres custom of tossing cats off of a tower is just one example of these past practices. Attitudes towards cats changed in the last 200 years, however. These days, Europeans view cats as charming household pets.

In spite of its origin, today's Kattestoet reflects the Belgian people's love for cats. The cat is the main symbol of the festival and its image can be found everywhere. The town's merchants display all manner of goods with cat images on them, toy dealers sell stuffed cats, and confectioners offer candy cats in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. What's more, festival participants dress as cats, complete with face paint and furry leotards.

Finally, the cat tossing event serves as the highlight of the entire festival. Spectators crowd around the Cloth Hall's highest tower, hoping to take home one of the toy cats. A man chosen to play the role of the town's jester (or clown) flings the plush toys over the edge in various directions. These prizes thrill those lucky enough to catch them as they fall. Kattestoet

Parade

About 2,500 people march in the Kattestoet parade. Some dress as pages or Flemish noblemen and women, while others are flag bearers or play in marching bands. The rest of the parade participants, however, dress as cats or work with the floats and giant cat figures. The parade features floats depicting cats throughout history. Popular float subjects include the history of cat worship, cats in ancient Egypt, cats in the Middle Ages, Celtic cats, cats in lore and legend, and cats around the world.

Since 1955, two male cartoon cats named Pietje Pek and Cieper have served as mascots for the Kattestoet. In 1971, Cieper found a mate in the female cat Minneke Poes, a new addition to the festival. In 1974, the couple showed off their first kitten, Pieperke. These characters are represented by giant cat puppets that bring up the rear of the parade.

Witch

In the Middle Ages, many Europeans believed in and were terrified of witches. They feared that witches' supernatural powers came from the devil. As a result, they often harassed or killed suspected witches. In many places, suspected witches were burned to death. The contemporary Kattestoet closes with a symbolic witch burning reminiscent of the Middle Ages, even though there is no evidence that witch burnings were included in the medieval festival. The burning takes place after the cat tossing event. Mock judges proclaim the witch guilty and the verdict is announced to the crowd. A mass of red and white balloons is released at the same time. Then the witch effigy, surrounded by a large heap of wood and brush, is set aflame.

FURTHER READING

Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Shapiro Devreux, Anne. "Medieval Sorcery, Modern Fest." New York Times. Travel Section. May 7, 1989.

WEB SITES

City of Ieper www.ieper.be/ieper_en.aspx

Trabel.com www.trabel.com/ieper/ieper.htm www.trabel.com/ieper/ieper-history.htm www.trabel.com/ieper/ieper-clothhall.htm

Kattestoet (Festival of the Cats)

Second Sunday in May; parade every three years (2009, 2012, 2015 . . .)
A peculiar celebration to commemorate an event involving cats, Kattestoet is held in Ieper (Ypres), West Flanders, Belgium. There are different stories about how the festival began. One story says that in 962, Baudoin III, count of Flanders, threw several live cats from his castle tower to show that he wasn't awed by cats. The animals had historically been worshipped as creatures related to witches, and Baudoin, a recent Christian convert, was demonstrating that he didn't believe in such pagan ideas.
Another story is that cats in great numbers were needed in the Middle Ages to battle mice and rats. The Cloth Hall, where yearly sales of cloth and garments were held, attracted mice, and cats were set free to devour the mice. But once the sales were over, the rodent problem disappeared and there was a cat problem. The solution seemed to be to hurl the live cats from the belfry.
In the celebration today, about 2,000 people, dressed as cats, witches, and giants, march in a parade to the tune of bagpipes. Floats depict the history of the town and of feline figures—Puss in Boots, the Egyptian cat-headed goddess Bast, and others. The climax of the celebration comes when a jester throws toy witches and stuffed cloth cats from the town belfry.
CONTACTS:
Dienst Toerisme
Grote Markt 34
Ypres, B 8900 Belgium
32-57-23-92-20; fax: 32-57-239-275
www.ieper.be/ieper_en.aspx?SGREF=10587
SOURCES:
BkHolWrld-1986, May 12
GdWrldFest-1985, p. 21
HolSymbols-2009, p. 438