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Following Christmas excesses in a lot of places, it’s normal for people to take a month or so off from partying in the new year – until February at least, when Carnival begins in the run-up to Easter. It’s a different story in the picturesque mountain village of Silió in Cantabria, though – on the first Sunday of every year (or the second if New Year’s Day is a Sunday), a spectacle known as the Vijanera takes place.

What is the Vijanera?

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The Vijanera is a popular carnival-type celebration which apparently has its roots in Roman times. Under Franco, who disapproved of all non-religious fiestas, the celebration was stopped – but it was revived a few years ago and has come back with a bang. Participants dress up as allegorical and mocking figures – we saw mock priests “blessing” people by splashing water at them; pretend members of the Guardia Civil; people dressed as trees, a bear with a bloodied mouth; an old couple; a cross-dressed nurse and doctor who stopped to tell dirty jokes; and a really cute little boy dressed as a walnut.

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The most significant people in the whole show are the Zarramacos (the photo above isn’t mine, it was taken by Carlos). These guys wear pointy black hats and a sheepskin jacket with bells attached – the sound of which is meant to drive the evil spirits from the village. At the culmination of the fiesta, the “bear” (it’s just somebody dressed up!) is captured and killed by the Zarramacos, thus ridding the village of malign influences and welcoming in a  fresh new year.

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Silió is a tiny place in the mountains that you might not visit if it weren’t for the Vijanera, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth exploring in its own right. I took this picture of the church in the frost while we were waiting for the festivities to begin, and there’s also a small museum/interpretation centre dedicated to explaining the significance of the festival to anyone who’s interested.

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The festival also includes some familiar fertility-type symbolism: green men, carts loaded with flowers, and various colourful dresses and outfits.

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Look at the tiny Zarramaco on the far right of this picture! If there’s something about fiestas in Spain that I really like, it’s that they’re inclusive of all ages – from babies to teens and couples or families to the older generation. That goes for participants as well as onlookers.

My Tips

Everyone told us we’d have to be in Silió at the crack of dawn for the Vijanera. They were wrong! My sister-in-law got there at 8.30am last year, and we arrived at 9am this year. We were able to get a great parking space and find a perfect viewing spot (standing above the crowd by the wall of the church) but we ended up hanging around for almost 3 hours before anything started: not fun because it was -5C. The official start time was 11.30, but things kicked off a little later than that. If we go again next year, I don’t think we’ll plan on getting there until about 10 or even later.

It doesn’t actually matter if you arrive after the whole thing has started (except you might have to park quite far away). The parading and festivities continue pretty much all day, with traditional music and food as well until about 9pm.

Because there’s a photo competition involved, lots of people come armed with their fancy cameras, running in front of the parades in an effort to take winning shots. If you want to take part, make sure you’ve got sharp elbows. Otherwise, I recommend finding a place to watch either on the bridge or by the church walls, where we stood. We saw plenty of people climbing the foot of the mountain (the parades come down from there) – but it’s probably not such a good place to see everything, because the participants come down quite quickly and most of the real action happens in the village itself.

Festival Information

You can find information on the Vijanera on Spain’s official tourism site here (the next date is January 7, 2018).

There’s information about the background of the festival on Spanish Wikipedia or in English.

Finally, the fiesta’s official website can be found right here.