Ancient Winter Mask Traditions in the Portuguese and Spanish Borderlands

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International borders rarely delineate cultures or people living near them as they are often merely fabricated boundaries that in reality only separate families and communities. Common cultural trends, identities and ideas permeate through these often very porous manmade partitions. The shared border history between Spain and Portugal is a long and complicated one, but their citizens have undoubtedly maintained, whether consciously or not, many common immaterial cultural traits that span across the political line separating these two nations.  In the Zamora province of the Castilla y Leon region of Spain and in the eastern part of the Duero river valley including the northeastern Tras-Os-Montes region of Portugal many unique and ancient winter rites and traditions are found. These solstice festivals, which have their origins in early Celtic cultures and/or the later pre-Christianized Roman beliefs, persist and are quite vibrant even in present times.  These “pagan” rites after the rise of Christianity were often co-opted by the Church and then blended with liturgical practices to eventually become syncretic traditions. In time, however, the original pagan meaning and significance of the masks and rituals began to fade in many villages despite their continued use and practice. Perhaps one common, prevailing theme, as António Pinelo Tiza describes in his book with Jesús Nuñez Gutiérrez Máscaras da Província de Zamora, do Nordeste Transmontano e Douro is the concept of fertility – the renewed fertility of nature to bring in a good harvest and hunt and the fertility of the people for the survival of the village. The masks and costumes, it is believed, were used to frighten away evil spirits that could prevent this renewal during a long winter.

Transmontano - Zamora Region

Today most of these lively, colorful and passionate displays occur in the days shortly after winter solstice and continue until the Feast of the Magi (the Epiphany) on January 6th depending on the village.  Some villages have festivals in the late winter that (not coincidentally) take place during the days preceding the season of Lent (i.e. Carnival).  In all of the villages that maintain these traditions in this region, the participants wear colorful and/or rustic costumes and wear some type of mask or face paint. These mask-wearers (caretos in Portuguese) many times have specific names that are unique to each village and are often seen in groups or as solitary figures.

This winter I had the opportunity to witness two of these festivals (as well as get lots of exercise with all of the running required).  The first was in Salsas, Portugal, just south of the city of Bragança and the second was in Montamarta, a village north of the city of Zamora in Spain.  In Salsas, the caretos run through the village at night from January 1st to January 6th and stop at various homes to ask for sausages and alms.  They scare and “harass” anyone seen in their path at night, particularly young girls. On the final evening, a large feast is prepared (with all of the food collected) where all the villagers are invited to take part in the merriment during the cold winter night.  In Montamarta, in Zamora province in Spain, I followed the character called El Zangarrón (a masked village character) through the village streets as he ran the whole morning and collected alms from every house.  El Zangarrón appears twice in the village, on January 1st and on January 6th.  On New Years Day, his mask is black and on January 6th his mask is red, representing the old and new years, respectively. The character finishes his requests for alms by midday by going to the church located just outside of the village where he then “encourages” the villagers to attend the mass.  Afterwards, armed with a trident, he chases down young single men and “beats” them 3 times with his trident, perhaps representing the frightening away of evil spirits that could inhibit their virility.

The traditions that I had the opportunity to observe and take part in were truly wonderful and unforgettable experiences.  I hope that the supposed original objectives of these ancient rites are successful for these villages and that my participation in them will have some “positive” personal effect as well!  The photos above are of the people and places mentioned in this post.


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