As you may be aware Portugal is known for some shocking behaviours: eating lupin beans, lining up for everything and kissing people on the cheek are just a few examples.
What if I tell you that in some parts of the country people put on funky costumes and masks, jingling rattly things and go about playing pranks, jumping and running? No need to panic just yet, this only happens a few times a year.
From December to February/March (usually until Carnival, but some happening as late as June) there are, still today, celebrations that imply the use of specific masks and costumes, celebrations which are a mix of playing pranks, rites of passage, saying goodbye to Winter, welcoming Spring, the victory of good over evil and young over old. It’s almost as if each person wearing a mask happened to be a kind of shaman, with the people in each community taking part in a ritual with very specific purposes. There’s flutes, bagpipes, bells, dancing and jumping around. There’s also a bit of temporary gender swap happening: in some traditions women go dressed as men and the other way around, while in other cases women started wearing the masks and costumes which were, previously, only used by young men.
These traditions are not exclusively Portuguese, however, and all over Europe there are still many festivities which mix Christian and pre-Christian aspects. The origins of these masks and traditions are not always very clear, although it is obvious they are rooted in Paganism. Like with so many other Pagan traditions the Christian Church could not simply erase them – so they adapted them.
In Portugal you’ll find these masks mostly in the northeastern part of the country, but they’re actually used as far south as in the Aveiro area. The most famous of these celebrations is probably the one that takes place in Podence (district of Bragança), during Carnival, with the “caretos” being the main actors in their red, yellow and green costumes.
If you’re curious about these masks and if you’re ever in Bragança I highly recommend visiting the Museu Ibérico da Máscara e do Traje.
If you’re in or near Lisbon you can also attend the Festival Internacional da Máscara Ibérica (FIMI), which includes masks and costumes from other countries besides Portugal (and where these photos were taken).