ACEHUCHE, Spain — It’s hours before dawn in Acehuche, a small town in Spain’s western Extremadura region, and a group of youngsters is ending a parade by setting off fireworks and beating drums.

The noise awakes residents for some of the biggest dates in the local calendar: the three-day celebration of the fur-covered characters known as “Carantoñas” that resemble wild beasts.

With roots in pagan traditions of fertility that were incorporated into religious symbolism, the ancient festival currently marks Acehuche’s patron, St. Sebastian, whom the Catholic tradition considers a martyr of the early anti-Christian Romans.

After the 2021 edition was canceled amid a strong surge in coronavirus cases, the festival went ahead in late January this year. It was held under strict mask-wearing rules due to record numbers of infections across Spain fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant.