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In the small village of Silio in Cantabria, the villagers rang in the new year today by celebrating the first carnaval of the year in Spain, La Vijanera. La Vijanera is a colorful and unique festival generally held the first Sunday of the year (pushed back a week this year to not coincide with New Years Day).

Although referred to as a carnaval, the origins of the festival are ancient, related to pagan rituals practiced by the Cantabrian tribes that inhabited the area prior to the arrival of the Romans and prior to the arrival of Christianity.  In all likelihood it was tied to a celebration of the winter solstice, when a new year makes its beginning with days finally getting longer again.

The origins could possibly go back much further and be related to rituals performed by the shaman or clans of the first Europeans that created the art in the found in many of the caves of Cantabria. Regardless of which historical period of Cantabria this ritual began in, it continues to this day and is one of my favorite festivals of the year in Cantabria.

Much of the town dons unique and colorful costumes and plays out different scenes throughout the morning around the entire valley of Silio.  Costumes include various characters including jumping harlequin types, animals, cow bell covered warriors, mythological natural creatures and various other frightening and funny costumes.   Each character symbolizes something unique sucha as good or evil, the passage of time, man´s conquest of nature, fertility etc.

Zarramacos – new generation of belled good warriors, warding off evil spirits with their sounding bells as they jump

The day begins early in Silio with the youngest Vijaneros waking the entire town by parading with cowbells before dawn so that all the necessary preparations can be made for the big day.  Around noon, an animal horn is blow and things get started. A smaller group of Vijaneros goes up to the forest above town to capture the bear.  The entire group of Vijaneros then comes together and marches to the edge of town drawing a line in the ground to let the folks in Santían (the next town over) to not mess with Silío. Afterwards they parade to the center of town where all the villagers gather together to sing the coplas, humorous rhymes that recall all the events of the prior year from local happenings to international news.

Singing of Las Coplas

They play out a comedic scene of the birth of the new year and then culminate the triumph of good over evil with the symbolic killing of the bear.

Killing of the bear

It is a festival filled with color, rythms, comedy, and lots of symbolism.  Quite unique. Here is a very well made video that does a wonderful job transmitting the fervor and fun of the festival.

The festival has the distinction of being a “Fiesta de Interés Turístico Nacional”, a national recognition as a culturally important and unique festival (one of nine here in Cantabria).  It gets the year off to a kick and reminds you that although winter just recently started, the days are gaining ground on the nights and spring is just around the corner.  A new year pep rally if you will 😉