15 May 2018

The Cat Festival of Ypres

From The Revd Gillian Trinder (Chaplain of St George's Memorial Church, Ypres):

The Cat Festival of Ypres celebrated its 45th anniversary on Sunday 13th May 2018. This festival is a time of joyful celebration for all the local people – but it is rooted in a much darker origin! During the Middle Ages Ypres was famous as a centre of Flemish cloth weaving and stored all its woollen goods in the great Cloth Hall on the market square. The American word diaper (or nappy) is a corruption of the generic term for cloth - De Ypres. During the wintertime cats were allowed to roam free to keep down the rats and the mice. But in the spring when the cloth was traded abroad the cats became a liability.  They were taken up to the top of the belfry and thrown to their deaths in the market square below.  This cruel sport continued until as late as 1817. But in 1955 an enterprising Burgomeister developed the idea of reviving the Cat Festival as a way of cheering up the local population after the devastations of WW2. It was a great success and today attracts thousands of visitors from all around the world. This year the special theme was kittens.

This year was my first experience of the Cat Festival which is held in Ypres every three years and draws in all the local schools, businesses and marching bands to take part. I took a seat up by the Menin Gate where the Parade starts and found that I was in a prime position to get pelted by cascades of sweets thrown out from the passing business vans in the Publicity Parade. Astute local children positioned themselves on the corners of the road and rapidly filled up whole bags full of sweets and free gifts including fans, frisbees, footballs, hats and sunglasses.

This is followed by a procession of decorated floats on a remarkable variety of different cat themes.  The novelty floats included a cat’s laundry wash, a fantasy castle of cats followed by dancing mice and the bedtime story of Puss in Boots. The procession always features a pair of giant cats called Cieper and Minneke Poes. The whole history of the town of Ypres passed before our eyes with the Ypres cloth weavers, the building of the city walls and the hurling of cannonballs from a trebuchet to symbolise the centuries of conflicts in Flanders. We saw medieval ladies and gentlemen on horseback, coveys of witches and the Knights Templar. All of these events will be portrayed in the new Museum of Ypres which will be opening in the Cloth Hall in July.

These floats are interspersed with music bands, jesters, jugglers, fire-breathers, dancers, actors and acrobats who perform to entertain the crowds during the three-hour long procession. I particularly enjoyed the fabulous displays of synchronised flag-throwing, the dancing ladies with rainbow umbrellas and the children dressed as cats performing the Charleston.

The day always ends with the ceremony of throwing toy cats. The town jester Brian took up his position on a balcony on the Cloth Hall and threw toy cats and kittens down to the eagerly waiting crowds in the square below. I didn’t manage to catch a cat – but I did have an unforgettable day out at the amazing Cat Festival of Ypres!