The Ultimate Guide to Spain’s La Vijanera Festival
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The Ultimate Guide to Spain’s La Vijanera Festival

I’ll admit, I’ve got a bit of a Facebook problem. I’m on it a bit too often. As is everyone, really. It’s candy corn for your brain. You know it’s complete and utter garbage and you don’t even really enjoy it, but still, there you are. Scrolling away through a bunch of nothing. These days, my newsfeed consists primarily of political rants, recycled memes and cat videos. But once in a while, as I scroll aimlessly through the Trump complaints & the LGBQRSTUV agenda, I’ll come across something great. Recently, that great something was this article trending about photographer Charles Freger.

I’ve looked up to Charles Freger for quite some time – he produces some of the most impressive indigenous photography I’ve ever seen. Freger is on my primitive portraiture hall of fame, right up there with Steve McCurry and Jimmy Nelson. His ongoing series focuses on masquerades and their place in indigenous histories. The pictures are downright incredible, and this article had me feeling all types manic inspiration. It was a week until my birthday, and my aunt had just asked me what I wanted. I knew I had to tell her something tangible or else I was going to wind up with a pocket full of Applebee’s giftcards. I asked her to get me Freger’s book, Wilder Mann : The Image of the Savage.

The book is a collection of photos depicting ritualistic masquerades of mythological figures found throughout wintery Europe. Freger travelled through 18 European countries, documenting their primitive carnivales that celebrate the seasons, fertility, life, and death. Each had their own characters, customs, and centuries of stories to tell. Some of the photos that I found most interesting were from La Vijanera.

What exactly is La Vijanera?

La Vijanera is a festival that celebrates the transition of the new year with good omens, and the warding off of evil spirits. The event takes place in the tiny Spanish mountain village of Silio, on the first Sunday of each new year. It is perhaps Europe’s oldest winter masquerade of pre-Roman origin. The cults of this time and place were naturalistic – worshipping the sun, the moon, the mountains and the rivers that flowed freely through them. We see relation to the Celtic rite of the ice solstice that celebrates the gradual lengthening of days, where nature slowly begins to awaken from it’s infertile winter drowse.

In pre-Roman Cantabria, the primitive inhabitants immortalized figures with zoomorphic features. It’s thought that the Shamans embraced animal forms as a way to call upon their strength. When you understand a bit of this history, you can see why Silio’s community steers clear of the term carnival. This is not a carnival. They don’t wear costumes. This is a centuries-old rite that has been preserved thanks to the efforts of a community that is focused on their traditional culture and values.

After all, it’s far beyond difficult to conserve these customs, and very few have reached the modern day. Catholicism became the state religion when the Spanish government signed the Concordat of 1851 with the Vatican. From a Christian standpoint, these types of celebrations were strictly condemned. You know what Christians really didn’t like? Characterizing yourself with animal forms. Men wearing women’s clothing. Crass burlesque comedy routines. Too devilish they said. Too spicy for the Christians.

But these are all parts of La Vijanera. They’re the things that make it so unique and so special. This is pure, undiluted culture. This is why I had to go.

Getting There

By Plane: The easiest thing to do would be to fly into Santander (45min drive away or accessible by public transportation). I opted to save money, and was able to use Skyscanner to find airfare for $203 roundtrip from JFK airport (NYC) to Madrid, Spain. From Madrid, you can rent a car and drive directly to Silio in around 4 hours. If you do plan on renting a car, remember be sure you have an International Driver’s Permit – you can’t rent a vehicle without one. Pick one up at any AAA Store in the US, the whole process takes about 15 minutes. Once you’ve rented the car, remember to set your GPS to ‘avoid tolls.’ The tolls there aren’t cute little $1 and $2 tolls. One of them was like $80. Finally, read my blog about how to avoid speed traps in Spain because those highways are boobytrapped.

By Public Transportation: No car? No problem. Fly into whereever and take a bus to Santander. From Santander, take the train to Molledo Portolin (50mins). Once at Molledo Portolin you can either walk 2km to Silio or take the ALSA bus (Corr-Barcn line) 8 stops to Silio (25 mins).

The Characters

The Trapajone

Symbolism: The Trapajone is a character of La Vijanera that represents the ancient Indo-European rites of union with nature. In addition to fighting evils, the rite promotes the fertility of the land that will endure the survival of this group.

Dress: His garmets are made from elements typical of the natural environment of the village. You can find ivy, moss, leaves, straw, pine, oak bark, or nutshells to name a few. They usually wear a mask and a stick made of the same elements as the suit.

The Trapajero

Symbolism: The Trapajeros are not to be confused with the Trapajones. In fact, they’re quite the opposite. These characters represent the total lack of inhibition present in all carnivals. They’re wildlings, lacking in the self control department. However, their main function is in their movements along the parade thru the town. Their poles of rags, constructed the same way as their suits, were traditionally dipped in mud that they shake at onlookers, most typically at females. This represents a rite of fertility. Their actions make them perhaps the most striking of any character in La Vijanera.

Dress: Trapajeras are characterized by wearing strips of colorful old clothing, covering their face with a mask and shaking a stick that also hangs of strips of rags

The Zarramaco

Symbolism: The Zarramaco is defined as the warrior of good. Although all the characters of La Vijanera are important and each one fulfills its duty within the ritual, the Zarramaco is one of the most spectacular. He is also one of the most common characters in all of the winter carnivals in the north of the peninsula and Europe. The noise they create with the clatter their bells is an attempt to ward off evil spirits in the new year. His black face is related to another important character – the bear.

The bear has been dwelling in his cave, and in order for him to come out of his hibernation, he must see everything dark. According to this theory, the bear kept the souls of the deceased with him in his cave. If he left them, they would be released. Otherwise, he would hibernate for 40 more days, thus prolonging the winter, and delaying the arrival of spring. Hence the importance of the Zarramacos, to lure the bear from his cave with their blackened faces. Once they capture the bear, the Zarramacos frighten the souls through the noise of their loud bells, cleansing their town of the negative energies. They are the protectors of their territories and it is their duty to ensure the safety of Silio.

Dress: On the head, he wears a cone covered with black cloth, adorned with bows and rosettes and crowned with horsehair. There are variants collected in old photos in which this character replaces the cone with a beret or a handkerchief tied to the forehead. The face is blackened with burnt cork or paint. He wears a blue and white plaid scarf as a tie around his neck.

Foam or rags are placed on the shoulders so that the weight and movement of the bells do not cause sores and chafing. On top he will wear a white shirt and on this two white sheep skins. One tied at the waist, and a larger one with a hole in the center for the head and that will cover the shoulders, the weight, and the back. Each Zarramaco typically has four bells in front and four in the back. Normally the superiors are the largest and heaviest. These bells (such as in the photo) weigh 88 pounds (40 kilos). Their mooring is done in the old way with wet leather ropes, formerly used to tie the cows to the yoke and molded until they reach the desired shape. This is one of the most expensive and time-consuming processes within the event.

He wears blue work pants, two pieces of sheepskin or leathers tied with buckles, with white esparto shoes or canvas boots. In hand, he carries a plow generally carved of holly, with tacks finishing off the barbed spikes. The lower part is usually painted black since it is used to lure the bear. These days, a modern Vijanera has 10 – 20 Zarramacos. In the past their number was much smaller and only the tanned men in the field work were able to withstand the effort of dancing throughout the day under the weight of all of their bells.

The Danzarín Blanco (White Dancer)

Symbolism:  The White Dancer is responsible for opening the procession and to wow the attendees with their jumps and pirouettes. The ‘White’ characters represent the new to come, the coming of spring, and the beginning of a new cycle. This character is commonly found in other masquerades Cantabria. If you travel to Polaciones or Carabeos, they are called Zamarrones. In Asturias they are referred to as Guirrios. You say tomato, I say to-mah-to.

Dress: He wears a white top and pants, along with a red sash from the shoulder to the waist. On his head he wears a tall cylindrical hat, adorned with jingle bells, red bows and pom poms. On his feet, he wears leather leggings, white socks and white esparto shoes. His leather belt is strung with a collection of small dangling bells that will ring as he jumps and spins. His face, just like the rest of the “white” characters, can be covered by a mask or eyemask. If he choses to go without a mask, he can wear white face paint, with red painted lips. In one hand he carries a long stick “as a way of passage.” He uses the stick to push off of the ground and jump to higher heights. Once propelled off the ground, he will wiggle his waist so all of his bells jingle simultaneously. He is both a visual and auditory spectacle!

The Danzarín Negro (Black Dancer)

Symbolism: The role and functions of the black dancer are quite similar to those of the white dancer. He leads the procession through town, the master of ceremonies, performing high jumps and pirouettes through the streets.

Dress: The Black Dancer’s clothes are totally antagonistic to those of the white dancer. He wears a jacket and pants made of old sacks covered with “garabojos” (shelled corn cobs). He carries two accessories – his large stick that he uses to aid in his jumping, along with his horn that he sounds during the procession.

El Oso (The Bear)

Symbolism: The bear is the star of the show at La Vijanera. He’s got quite the story to tell. The bear was seen as a dangerous figure, as he was the creature that lurked after the cattle. He was the predator that threatened the survival of the human species. He went on to become the pure embodiment of evil, holding captive the souls of the deceased. During the long winter, he hibernates in his cave. His exit signifies the beginning of spring and the end of winter. His tale is similar to our silly American Groundhog’s Day. If the bear comes out and sees dark, this is a new moon, and the bear lets out a big ol’ fart releasing the souls of the deceased (lol, I know). Contrarily, if the moon is full and the bear see’s light, he will go back into his cave and sleep for forty more days, prolonging winter and delaying spring. This is the reason that the zarramacos and the amo paint their faces black to symbolize night – whenever they approach the bear he must see everything dark.

Dress: The bear is a man disguised with heavy sheep skins; which I’m sure are unbearably hot (see what I did there?). The suit is made as follows: The head is normally rounded with a helmet inside. Two ears are added to the top and a snout with painted wooden teeth and two eye openings. The body is a two piece top & pant set, constructed of well washed and brushed sheep skins. The hands are black gloves with claws like nails.

El Amo (The Master)

Symbolism: Like the Zarramacos, the master symbolizes the forces of good. He is in charge of luring the bear from his cave and capturing him, then proudly showing off his prized capture to the community, up until the bear is finally killed in the center of town.

The master attaches chains to the bear, then whips and harrasses the animal as he parades it through town. His struggles to control the bear are constant, as the bear tries to break free and mix between the people of the crowd.

Dress: He wears montera clothing, leather leggings, blue work pants, red sash, plaid shirt and black vest. On his feet, wool socks are worn above the pants, and esparto shoes with blue or red ribbons. Like the zarramacos, his face is painted black like the night, since he is the character that removes the bear from his cave. His head typically covered with a brown velvet cap. On his shoulder, he carries a cow horn for sounding and a wine boot to quench his thirsts as he tries to contain the bear through the procession until the animal is persecuted to death in order to end the evils and misfortunes that he brings.

La Vieja & El Viejo (The Old Man & Woman)

Symbolism: This pair represents the passage of time, symbolizing the previous year and how it concludes with necessary deaths, both in nature and in the community.

Dress: The old woman wears a black shirt and skirt, covers her head with a black scarf. Her one arm is always paired with her Viejo, while her other hand holds a lidded wicker basket. In the basket she has bacon, sausages, and wines which she offers to the festival’s attendees. She covers her face with a decrepit mask that reflects her age and worn appearance.

The old man wears a shirt, vest, beret, pants and coat in the style of the 1020s. He wears a black girdle around his waist and carries a pocket watch hanging from his vest. Occasionally he will take out his flask or pipe to indulge in. He also covers his face with a mask and help himself walk with a wooden cachaba.

The Zorrocloco

Symbolism: ‘Zorro’ refers to the word ‘fox’, because his character is cunning like a fox. ‘Cloco’ refers to cloquear, sound emitted by the cluecas hens. Similar to the bear, he symbolizes evil, but by means of intelligence – not shear strength. He is deceptive, machiavellian, and a symbol of the devil himself.

Dress: This character is dressed like a human, but covered in fox skins. A fox head is attached to the hat, his eyes are covered with a mask while the rest of the face is typically painted black. Their top and pants/ skirt are made of the same material, and they wear an old jacket on top. On his arm he wears a basket full of eggs that he has stolen from his prey.

The Experience

La Vijanera takes place on the first Sunday of each new year, but the children’s festivities occur on Saturday morning. For any photographer, I’d highly recommend attending the children’s event to get youself prepared for the main event on the following day. Arriving a day early, you’ll be able to familiarize yourself with the town and get yourself some practice shots. There aren’t any crazy crowds on Saturday, it’s pretty much only the locals with their children in the parade. I was able to get some great shots of the kids.

The children’s parade will begin at the school (look for the big pop up tent/ bar/ stage) and make its way through town, making multiple stops along the way where the master and bear will fight in the streets. They’ll complete a big loop around the center of town and finish up back at the school where they started. Here, I was able to pull some kids aside for a few portraits against white walls and less busy backgrounds.

When you’re done with your photo opportunities, familiarize yourself with the bars. You’ve got two options – the pop-up bar next to the school, or RESTAURANTE LAUSANA, on the right side of the road as soon as you enter the town. Aside from beer and wine, the local flavors here are calimocho (Coca Cola mixed with local red wine) and miel liqueur (alcohol made with local Cantabrian honey) . At the pop-up bar, we met an English speaking bartender who was totally woo’d by Leah and started pouring us shots of miel. I was hype that we found someone that spoke English so I started firing off questions:

“What time should we be here in the morning? Where’s the best place to get some photos without the crowd? Most importantly – where’s the bear going to get captured????”

He chuckled as he poured us another shot of miel. “That’s a secret!”

I hate secrets. I flew across the country for this. Just tell me where the bear gets caught, bro. I can’t even give it away, I don’t even speak Spanish.

I felt super unprepared. Since I was lacking all of the important details, I knew I needed to be there way early on Sunday morning. We roll into Silio before dawn and to my surprise the tiny streets are already lined with cars. It’s 8 am, it’s freezing cold, and I have no game plan. My anxiety has anxiety.

To the bar. Nothing takes the edge off like 4 or 5 shots of honey booze and a croissant. Guess who else was ripping miel shots for breakfast? You guessed it, yesterday’s bartender! Sometimes all you need is one familiar face in an unfamiliar place to get you feeling better. I bought us a round then he did us a huge solid and dropped a pin on my Google Maps, showing us the location for the capture of the bear! And with that pinpoint of knowledge, I felt my anxiety start to dissipate. Ok, it might also be the booze. It doesn’t matter. I felt better.

Everyone prepares their costumes and gets ready for the procession at the top oft he hill above Silio. It was still really cold, so instead of walking up from town, we drove the car up and parked there instead. Here we watched the Trapajones suiting up, and the Zarramacos painting their faces black with ash. Even at the top of the hill people were handing us more miel shots. And cake! The cake looks bangin’ so I indulge. I bite into it and get a hard thing – it’s a plastic doll or some shit. Someone’s kid stuck their toy in this cake, wtf. Later to find out it was rosca de reyes or ‘King Cake,’ I was the lucky one to find baby Jesus, and I just spit him on the floor.

It was nearing start time, so we made our way slightly down the hill to the point on the map that the bartender showed us. There was a little hut with a few people hanging around, but not too many. The characters were preparing in a number of different spots – you could certainly hear a group of them with their bells jingling inside this hut. The door opened for a brief second and one person stepped outside – our bartender! No wonder he knew where the bear would be hidden….he WAS the bear!

While everyone there stayed waiting for the procession, I noticed the bear took off running over the hills. As the characters began to march in, I ran off over the hills chasing after him. This was my chance to see the capture! I arrived just in time to see El Amo poking and prodding into the cave with his stick. I was lucky to be there when I was as only a small handful of people got to witness the bear lunge from his den. As soon as the fight began, a herd of people flocked over the hills – the secret was out.

Soon, the Zarramacos chime in to help protect their land from evil, and begin beating the shit out of the bear with their sticks too. It’s a free for all.

Eventually, El Amo gets the beast wrapped in chains and the procession begins downwards through the forest and into town. I was floored by how many different characters there actually were – there had to be 40 or 50 variations. The assortment of Trapajones were my absolute favorites – they were camouflaged throughout the forest, hidden in the trees like something out of a Miyazaki movie.

The walk through the woods is otherworldy. Take it in. You’ll never see anything quite like it again. We popped out of the other side of the forest, reaching a hill that overlooked the entire town and the thousands of people lining the streets. The Zarramacos bounce and clang their copper cowbells for the whole town to hear, then begin to lead the procession into Silio. For hours they run, jump and shake their way through the streets.

The procession will make a loop through the whole town and you can chose to follow it if you wish, but we opted to stay still and enjoy it from one place. Afterwards, they parade to the center of town where everyone gather together to sing the coplas, comedic rhymes that recall all the happenings of the prior year from local news & events. Around 2:30, on the stage, the villagers played out a silly scene of the birth of the new year and then everyone made their way towards the church for the killing of the bear.

In his symbolic death, good has triumphed over evil. Oh, and winter is over. Spring is coming. All good reasons to party. Which we did. In fact, we all partied so hard that they ran out of miel.

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Welcome to the adventures & misadventures of a solo female traveler. Detailed itineraries, fresh discoveries, photo recaps, and all the storytime so you can live vicariously thru my journals as I weasel my way across the world.