Saint Stephen was the first christian martyr. Deacon in Jerusalem, it is told that before his condemnation to stoning for blasphemy by the jewish authorities, he was in charge of food distribution for the most needed. His day is celebrated on the 26th or 27th of December throughout the world, but it’s on some villages of Trás-os-Montes, in Portugal, that those celebrations become more peculiar . Ousilhão, in the municipality of Vinhais, is one of those villages.
The festivities begin early in the morning. The four mordomos, boys selected on the previous year, go from door to door in the company of pipers and drummers. They bless each families singing and dancing.
As morning unfolds, in between the stone houses, we can hear the sound of cowbells and see people dressed in garish colors. They are the máscaras commonly known as caretos, and wear wooden masks with animal and demonic features. Maybe they are the heritage of old pagan cults celebrating winter solstice. They join the mordomos in their round through the houses, spreading mischief on their way.
Before, this was a part reserved for the village boys. Nowadays, a sign of a time where there is more equality, or maybe simply because these villages have very little young people, behind a mask can be either a boy or a girl.
Maybe to pay homage to the christian martyr that gives his name to the festivities, or simply by tradition, the visited families leave the table set so that everyone can eat and drink what they want. This is not the time to be shy. To enter each house, and to eat and drink with the village families is part of the tradition.
In the afternoon it’s time to fetch the King and his two Vassals. Crowned with shiny paper crowns, and carrying poles with an orange on the tip, they are carried in an oxcart, pulled by the masked men through the village, until they reach the church where a mass honoring the saint will be celebrated.
When it ends, and as the short and cold winter day approaches evening, everyone goes to an area of the village and a bonfire is lit. The party ends with dances and jumps through the flames.
This is a strange mix. Sacred festivities honoring a saint, rapidly become the profane celebrations of masks and dances around bonfires. Maybe it makes some sense, though. Perhaps during these days the demons visiting from another world, represented by the masks, bring the magic that helps each of the participants reinforce their faith, and keep on believing in something more than the reality that the world provides each day.
DISCLAIMER: These images were taken during the Saint Stephen festivities in 2018 and 2019. In 2020, due to the restrictions caused by the Covid pandemic, there were no festivities.