On December 26th and 27th of this past year I traveled to the mountain villages of Ousilhão and Grijó de Parada both near the northeastern Portuguese city of Bragança in the Trás Os Montes region. As I have covered in several previous posts, these are festivals that have their origins in the ancient pagan past. Syncretism (i.e. the blending of Christian liturgical practices with pagan/animistic beliefs) is definitely evident with the celebration dates coinciding with Saint Stephen’s (Santo Estêvão) day on the 26th of December.
In Ousilhão I arrived early in the morning after a 6 hour drive. It was a very cold morning. Arriving in the village was treacherous due to the snow and ice on the narrow mountain roads. I spoke with a Portuguese Guardia Civil in route and he gave me the best advice to arrive – vai devagar – take it slowly! Going through the mountains, although frightening at times, was at the same time rewarding with the views of the “winter wonderland” landscape of the snow-covered trees. I had thoughts of Schubert’s Winterreise driving through these snowy Portuguese forested mountains.
Upon my arrival in the high mountain valley where Ousilhão lies I found a sleepy village with the people just beginning to stir after a very celebratory Christmas just the day before. By 10am the first mascarados (mask wearers) began to leave their houses and join with many others. Once rallied together, all the mascarados began to make their rounds to many of the houses throughout the village. In ancient times the mascarados served the function of removing the evil spirits of winter with their frightening masks and loud strapped-on chocalhos (cow bells). By stopping by each home they are rewarded with food and drink for their “ghost-busting” efforts! I found these moments of entering the village homes to be very warm not just in stepping out of the frigid cold of December 26th, but also representative of the unity of the village with the sharing of food and drink with the young men and women who take part in the mascarado activity. Antonio Pinelo Tiza, the renowned anthropologist and expert on the Portuguese winter festivals helped to explain in his book, Máscaras de la Provincia de Zamora, del Nordeste Transmontano y Duero (2009) the traditional chant that I heard given by the mascarados before entering a home.
Estas casas são caiadas These houses are whitewashed
Cá por dentro, cá por fora Both inside and out
Muitos anos nelas vivam May they live for many years in them
Os senhores que nelas moram. The couple that dwells in them.
Estas casas são caiadas These houses are whitewashed
E o soalho é de vidro; And the floor is glass;
Muitos anos vivam nelas For many years they live in them
As mulheres com seus maridos. The wives with their husbands.
At the end of making their rounds through the entire village the mascarados convene at the entrance of the village church, but do not go in. Mass is given in the church and shortly afterwards many families of the village meet together share in an outdoor feast at a very large table. The mascarados come out yet again and participate in the constant reveling and lively atmosphere. Due to the constant mist and my fears of the roads leaving the village icing over with a renewed snowfall, I was unable to stay for the feast and needed to get off the mountain to lower altitudes before nightfall. I left Ousilhão as the snow began to fall again, not full of food and drink, but filled with an incredible experience of having had the opportunity to have seen such an incredible and dare I say “spirited” spectacle. The photos are of the people and places mentioned in this post.
Grijó de Parada
The following day, I left early in the morning with Antonio Pinelo Tiza, the well published anthropologist from Bragança, and two photographers from Spain, Claudio de La Cal and Carlos González Ximénez. We headed southeast from Bragança to the village of Grijó de Parada. Grijó is located in a rugged land near where the Rio Sabor passes through. Outside the village the land is dotted with stands of oak, chestnut, pine, and some olive trees. It was a misty cold morning in the village. The misty dreary day, however, did not dampen the spirits as a quartet of two drummers and two gaiteiros (Portuguese for bagpipe player from the ancient celtic origins in the region. An instrument still played throughout northern Portugal and the region of Galicia, Spain) had already started playing and was melodically calling all who desired to come out and celebrate in the streets.
Recording of the reveling traditional gaiteiros and percussion accompaniment of Grijó de Parada
The mascarados serve the same purpose as in many villages that have these celebrations, a frightening away of the evil spirits of winter. Their regalia, was also very similar to others in the region (Salsas, Ousilhão, and Vila Boa), but there were some unique differences. In Grijó the wooden mask over the years had become substituted with masks made of tin. At the house of the artisan, Antonio Passáro who still makes and supplies these wooden masks to some users, I was told by his wife and daughter that many people over the years found the masks to be heavy and uncomfortable. After seeing how high-spirited the mascarados were throughout the day, I realized just how exhausting they could feel in a mask made of freixo (ashwood). Nevertheless, I found the wooden masks to be quite beautiful and unique.
Another interesting characteristic of Grijó’s winter celebration is the unique concept of almsgiving to the mascarados. Each mascarado carries a cane and their own apple or quince in hand. As the contingent of rollicking mask wearers goes through the town livening up the village for the celebration, they individually choose houses or passersby whom they ask for alms. These are given in the form of food, wine or coins – coins, which they then push into their apples. By the end of the loud and lively rounds made through the village, their apples are full of protruding coins. And each mask wearer was feeling quite warm and happy after all the port wine offered to them! I asked Antonio about the significance of this tradition and he explained that the apple (or quince) represents fertility and the almsgiving is a way for the villagers to show gratitude to the mascarados for their important contribution to the celebration. I emptied my pockets of much of my spare change throughout the day for these wonderful mascarados!
At the end of the village rounds completed by the mascarados, many of the participants and villagers convened at the community center for lunch. It was a wonderful way for everyone to come together; villagers, mascarados, and visitors. As per tradition, we sat at an enormous table with bench-seating and shared in grilled sardines, slices of mirandese beef, hearty bread and red wine. This was a warm shared meal that accompanied a truly warm people on a cold and wet winter’s day.
The recording and photos are of the people and places mentioned in this post.