At the moment, the best place in Belgium to be a cat might be Ypres, where every three years a large folkloric parade is held in the animal’s honor. However, a peculiar part of the activities, the flinging of plush cats from the city’s bell tower, hints at the festival’s less feline-friendly origins.
Once upon a time, being a cat in Ypres on the second week of Lent equaled certain death. That Wednesday, a day that became known as ‘Cat Wednesday,’ marks a dark page in feline history as the city’s cats were rounded up and thrown off of the highest tower. Written records show the tradition goes back as far as the 12th century. In the Middle Ages, Ypres – now mostly known as a major battlefield of the Great War – was a merchant town with a thriving cloth industry. Bales of wool would be shipped in from England and kept at the large ‘Lakenhalle,’ or Cloth Hall, along with already processed sheets, a paradise for mice and rats. The people of Ypres enlisted cats to eat the mice and keep them from gnawing holes in their livelihoods, a solution that worked perfectly at first – until their mice-catchers, presented with a veritable smorgasbord, started to breed like bunnies themselves.
Coupling their cat surplus with an already widespread belief that the animal was in cahoots with evil spirits, witches, and the devil, the Ieperlingen made throwing tabbies off of their 70-meter-high Belfry a mass spectacle. And while lots of other Belgian cities, such as Bruges, thought up cruel cat-torturing techniques in those superstitious days, Ypres has its modern festival to thank for reminding people of its cold-blooded past. That said, the last live feline to be chucked off the tower in 1817 did his species proud by surviving the fall and dashing off. On that hopeful note, the people of Ypres changed their ways. They wouldn’t throw another cat off the bell tower for over a century, and when they finally decided to revive the age-old tradition in the 30s, they did so with stuffed toys instead of the real thing.
In fact, Ypres has been making amends to the feline race for over 80 years now. May 13, 2018, will be the 44th edition of the triennial ‘Kattenstoet,’ or ‘Cat Parade,’ a folkloric festival that attracts tens of thousands of cat lovers from around the globe. The afternoon sees an impressive parade with floats, giant cats, and about 2,000 local volunteers dressed in medieval garb. The highlight of the day comes when the procession arrives at the bell tower, and the jester throws plush cats into the sea of people on the market square below – whoever catches a toy gets to make a wish, even a non-cat-related one.