There are many Winter traditions in Trás-Os-Montes that, like so many in Europe, go all the way back to the pre-christian Winter Solstice celebrations. Without going into much details, because are too complex for me to explain well enough, these are rituals that mark the birth of the new year, the time when the days start to become longer and it’s meaning is a lot related with fertility and the success for the harvests of the forthcoming year.
These celebrations were extremely important, so much that ended up being assimilated into the Christian traditions, specially Christmas, and until today there still a pagan and a non-pagan side to those. With time these started to spread out in the calendar, which now spans over a period that goes from late December to early January, and the same way its dates started to shift slightly its rites also evolved, adapting to each region’s, and even each village’s, surroundings and habits.
In the northern edge of Trás-Os-Montes all things happen during and right after Christmas, and what you’d see is something that this part of the country is getting known for: hordes of masked people, usually roaming the streets doing tricks. But in the Mirandese Plateau, the top-right corner of the country, things aren’t quite the same, something you’d expect from a region with a very strong identity, so much that’s where the other official language of this small country can be found.
Up there, in the villages of Tó, Bemposta or Vila Chã de Braciosa, these Winter traditions have moved to the first day of the year, with fewer people and less agitation but with the same passion, starting early in the morning, which tends to be cold in the stone-walled pastures of this part of the country. Each is different from the other: while in one there’s one of Portugal’s most elaborate masks, covered with several pagan symbols (like the serpent, the oranges or the horns that hold them), in another the mask has been replaced by a black face (legend says a priest stole it a long time ago, so the face has been painted black ever since). While the costumes and the actors may vary, there’s also a lot in common: one, or more, demon like figure that goes through streets, knocking on each house, asking for a offering, so that the new year brings good fortune to all, that ancient fertility symbolism that connects all these different celebrations.