• February 23, 2016

An Ancient Rite of Spring Showcases Local Color

Alexa Keefe

Every spring, families in the Spanish village of Colmenar Viejo with daughters between the ages of 7 and 11 gather to decide which of their girls will have the honor of being chosen as this year’s stars of “Las Mayas”, a collective rite of spring dating back to medieval times.

The festival of Las Mayas, Colmenar Viejo, Spain

The participating families build and decorate altars with aromatic flowers and herbs gathered from the surrounding countryside. The four or five mayas dress in costumes, a wreath of flowers adorning their heads. There are no written rules – everything has been passed down orally from generation to generation.

The festival of Las Mayas, Colmenar Viejo, Spain

On festival day, the mayas must sit in serene stillness on their altars on the streets of the village for two hours as the people living in the village pass by, admiring and commenting on the displays. A band of musicians roves from altar to altar, extolling the beauty and elegance of each girl. 10-15 other girls dressed in long white dresses and black jackets who serve as the mayas’ attendants, asking for coins from spectators in exchange for cleaning their jackets with brushes. Afterwards, everyone heads to church for mass. Sitting in the midst of them is like being in the middle of little angels, says photographer Daniel Ochoa de Olza.

(The scene is surreal but probably no less so than the Jarramplas festival he goes on to describe where a man dressed in body armor is pelted by turnips as symbolic punishment for stealing cattle.)

The festival of Las Mayas, Colmenar Viejo, Spain

Ochoa de Olza balances his job as a staff photographer for the AP with his personal passion for documenting Spain’s arcane festivals, of which, he says, there are many. His work on a bullfighter Juan José Padilla won a World Press Photo Award in 2013. This year, it is his portraits from Las Mayas, a festival particular to this small village about 18 miles outside of Madrid.

The festival of Las Mayas, Colmenar Viejo, Spain

These tableaux bring to mind Catholic icons, woodland fairies and a dash of Frida Kahlo. The scene may be visually rich but it is photographically straightforward. “The pictures are very simple,” he says, “but they have layers. That is what I like about shooting traditions. It’s another way of telling the story of my country. And I am discovering those traditions myself. They will last a bit longer than the breaking news that will be gone on a week – traditions will evolve over time, some will disappear completely.”

The festival of Las Mayas, Colmenar Viejo, Spain

What is also interesting to him is observing the human figure in the midst of the flowers and decorations – a human whose character and attitude are apparent by the look on her face, whether her eyes express a smile or annoyance at having to endure two hours on display.

The festival of Las Mayas, Colmenar Viejo, Spain

Ochoa de Olza hopes these pictures are a chance for people to understand how something that may seem exotic is part of our collective experience as human beings. “We are all doing strange things in all parts of the world,” he continues. “Everything is mixed with religion in Spain,” he says. “And I find it interesting in the 21st century we are still doing these festivals – it is a way to see where we are going and where we have come from – looking back to look forward.”

Daniel Ochoa de Olza was awarded second prize in the People category of the 2016 World Press Photo contest. See more of his photographs on his website.

There are 24 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Alvaro
    May 12, 2016

    Hi. I am spanish myself, and have lived in Madrid for around 10 years. Although I do not know this tradition (Colmenar Viejo is a small dormitory town outside of Madrid, and I´ve only been there because there is a University campus in the outskirts), I am confident in saying that even though the girls might look bored or even upset at being there, they´re certainly not bound nor forced. I know many people commenting here don´t really have an idea of what Spain is like, but trust me (or do some research), ours is a civilized, western european country, and there are laws against such abuses, and the community, social services and police wouldn´t let something like that happen. It upsests me a bit when I read ignorant comments trying to portray this as more than what it is: a local folklorical tradition, as there are many all around Europe,and certainly around the world, that are respectfully preserved, but adapted to the modern world. And even though Spain has a catholic tradition, the rates of actual practicants are in an all time low. And even traditions like bullfighting are close to being banned for the obvious animal mistreatment. My point being: don´t try to extrapolate this to other than that, a nice, curious folk tradition.

  2. karen
    March 3, 2016

    Is it inhumane to ask girls to sit still for two hours? (And allow their arms to be bound?) This kind of stillness is enacted in Zen and other kinds of spiritual practices. I’m sure it’s difficult for the girls, but it doesn’t compare with some of the analogies posted here! It may have been difficult for the girls, but the photographer has gone out of his way to allow their different attitudes to be expressed in the photos. As a form of performance art, these altars express, in addition to the beauties of Spring, the many variations of the natural world, of which we humans are a part. Lovely! Well done, all!

  3. Liz
    March 2, 2016

    “Liz, this is a tradition that has been passed around for more than 2,000 years and comes from the Celt Iberian spiritual beliefs.”

    To Artavo and the others who justify this as tradition, IMO tradition is not necessarily ‘good’ just because it has been happening for a long time. The Chinese have been practising their traditional medicine for thousands of years. Is it ok for them to kill rhinos for horns and tigers for bones etc? Is it ok for the Norwegians and Japanese to kill whales, whether they need the meat or not? Is FGM performed on little girls and child marriage ok too? To be honest I would not encourage my daughter to be part of this festival in anyway shape or form.

  4. Sherrie Miranda
    March 2, 2016

    I don’t know what to say. Is it true, as one commenter notes, that the hands are bound? They do seem to be. And several of these girls do NOT look happy.
    I disagree with beauty pageants, and therefor must disagree with this.
    Sherrie Miranda’s historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:
    Her husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:

  5. Pushpendra
    February 29, 2016

    In India too we celebrate spring time with great festivity with numerous event, notably HOLI-the festival of colors and start of our New Year, 2073 starts with lunar on April 8. It would be nice if the Gregorian calendar also starts with April 1 instead of winter January 1.

  6. Samantha
    February 29, 2016

    I teach junior high in an inner-city school in Arkansas. We have SO MANY cultures represented in our building! My fellow teachers and I come into contact with loads of cultural celebrations and traditions, but this one is new to me. I have a love of history and find that this tradition, this holding on to great ideas of the past, is wonderful. I’m really surprised that some comments represented here are so negative. The world is smaller now than ever. Traditions are being imploded by the constant bombardment of the internet and television. Why not hold on to the bits and pieces of the past that make each culture so rich and vibrant? No one is being hurt or ridiculed, so what difference does it make if individuals don’t personally get it? Let’s not culture bash…

  7. Esti Sheinberg
    February 29, 2016

    This is not sweet at all, albeit yes, very beautiful. I guess that sacrificing a virgin to the God of Spring was very aesthetic, too, but nevertheless inhumane, as is the hours-long display of young girls as a gift of spring. Many thanks for posting it, and eulogies to the photographer who called our awareness to this — still inhumane — tradition.

  8. Susan
    February 28, 2016

    Their arms are bound.

  9. Talia Marcus
    February 28, 2016

    Youth and Beauty abiding in The Gaze~

  10. Les Woollcott
    February 28, 2016


  11. ViYeoh
    February 28, 2016

    These beautiful pictures speak a thousand words. Thanks for the pictures because in my home country Malaysia, our traditions are different.

  12. Kristin
    February 28, 2016

    Thank you for sharing these interesting photos and again doing what Nat Geo does so well – showing me details of the lives and traditions of people in other parts of the world. Simply beautiful!

  13. Kasturi
    February 28, 2016

    Beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing this with us! It reminds me of similar rituals in India.

  14. Artavro
    February 28, 2016

    Liz, this is a tradition that has been passed around for more than 2,000 years and comes from the Celt Iberian spiritual beliefs. Those altars were in fact representations of the Mother Earth or Goddess Nature if you will, in one of her forms, the Maiden of the Spring, hence the flowers and the young ladies to represent her. It was one of their ways to show respect for Nature and welcome the Spring with its bounty and promise of fertility and life for fields, animals and communities. Just like many Native American tribes, Celt Iberians had a very respectful approach and devotion to Nature and this celebration had little to do in fact with virginity in itself but rather a welcome of the Spring. It may be hard for us to understand today but its relevance lies on their respect and celebration of Nature, values that unfortunately we have much lost today with our growing disconnection from Nature. I hope this helps us understand it a little better.

  15. rolf adams
    February 28, 2016

    Every society has its rituals that I certainly respect. The young ladies’ demeanor is a stark contrast to the beautiful, playful, joyous colors surrounding them.

  16. Jackie Law
    February 28, 2016

    Interesting ancient ritual! I love the contrasting colorful decorations with the unique costumes highlighted with the expressions of the girls for enduring two hours of sitting.

  17. Amy
    February 28, 2016

    So beautiful, thank you for showing the world these lovely ladies. We need to remember our roots, not just traditionally but also religiously. These photos represent that beauty perfectly.

  18. Vincent
    February 28, 2016

    A beautiful touch to my eyes and heart!

  19. ND
    February 28, 2016

    Beautiful altars. The girls look like they would rather be playing with their friends, their phones, or reading books. My fiancé is from Ciudad Real–near this village and has never heard nor seen this. I hope these girls are putting up and displaying their science projects next year.

  20. Liz
    February 28, 2016

    Disappointing, but not surprising to see that virgin worship is still alive and well in the 21st century.

  21. Veronica
    February 28, 2016

    Thank You, for exposing this beautiful tradition. I’m of Mexican descent, we celebrate our young girls with traditional Quinceañera…..which has been changing, adapting to current times…..

  22. ahmet
    February 27, 2016

    it s very sweet

  23. Linda G.
    February 26, 2016

    Such a beautiful tradition, thank you for showing it to the rest of us.

  24. Susan Hayek-Kent
    February 23, 2016

    how very beautiful and interesting are these young ladies and their expressions. this is a wonderful series highlighting the small rituals of our world.
    I love all of them.

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