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Creating the Day of the Basque Homeland
by John Ysursa
Aberri Eguna of the day of the Basque homeland is celebrated in conjunction with Easter in large parts of the Basque country, particularly those regions influenced by the Basque National movement about a century ago.
Arana coined the phrase: "Jaungoikoeta Lege Zaharrak" ("God and the Old Laws") which became the slogan of the PNV-EAJ or Basque Nationalist Party that he formed. He consistently sought to fuse Basque consciousness with Roman Catholicism. In those early years of the movement, to be Basque meant being catholic and regaining the fueros or old laws and the privileges that the southern Basques had lost in the Carlist wars of the 19th century.
In the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Basque ethnic sentiment was extremely weak. Arana set as his first objective the revival of the ancient Basque language, Euskerra, to serve as a functional medium to reintegrate Basques. In addition, he also created the new word Euzkadi (the "s" has now replaced the "z" spelling in Europe) which denoted the ethnic nation he envisioned of the seven historic provinces. He also designed the Ikurrina or Basque Flag of red, white and green.
Arana's efforts to unify the Basque people did not please the Spanish Authorities. During the last eleven years of his life he spend more time in jail than he did out. He died in 1903 at the early age of 38 before he accomplished his ambitious goals. He had hopes that the Basque could recover their fueros and thereby regain a degree of independence from Spanish authorities.
Nonetheless he succeeded in creating a modern Basque nationalist movement with an ideology and set of symbols. His followers carried on and worked to make the PNV-EAJ nationalist party a voice for the Basques but their efforts were halted by the Spanish military dictatorship of Miquel Primo de Reviera who in 1923 outlawed the PNV-EAJ party. Adherents were forced underground, but with the proclamation of the Second Republic that followed this period of repression, Basque nationalists were free once again to work for unity among Basques.
The PNV-EAJ sought to encourage Basque unity to send a message to Madrid that the presence of Spanish Authorities in the Basque country represented the oppression of a strong and vital people. Organizers put forth candidates in local and provincial elections, produced newspapers, arranged rallies, encouraged the Basque language and song and as well as folk-dancing(this is when the green sash was substituted for the red sash so that the dancer represented the colors of the Basque flag}.The aim was to forge a proud Basque consciousness among a people that had been repeatedly been told that they were backward and archaic. In the early 1930's these efforts culminated with annual Easter celebrations of the Basque's national identity.
The first Aberri Eguna was held on Easter Sunday, March 25,1932.Sixty-five thousand celebrated together together in Bilbao. Being true to the party's slogan, the festival fused both Basque culture and religion. The early nationalists promoted Catholicism and the choice of Easter, the major religious celebration in the Church's calendar, as the day to celebrate the homeland was no coincidence. Just as Easter marked the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the beginning of the church's year. Aberri Eguna also marked the rebirth of a people who had found themselves and their destiny.
This fusion of Basque consciousness and religion is clearly outlined in the schedule for one of the last celebrations of that decade. In Bilbao the Easter Sunday of 1937 began with Txistulariak processing through the streets before the morning pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Begonia and a communion service. This was followed by a large outdoor mass in the city's soccer stadium. After mass various dance groups paraded through the streets performing at various times. Song performances and sporting events were also organized for the day's festivities.
These early celebrations of the Basque's national identity ended with the fall of the Basque provinces to the insurgent rebel forces of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. The victors instigated a period of repression and banned most all things Basque. The repression of the Franco Regime, however, failed to extinguish Basque nationalist sentiment. Beginning in 1964 nationalists began to secretly organize the celebration of Aberri Eguna. Basque nationalists surprised Spanish Authorities with a secret Aberri Eguna celebration in Gernika in 1964.During the Franco era Spanish Authorities labored to halt these "illegal" celebrations of Basque culture. When they discovered the location of an upcoming Aberri Eguna, and effectively closed down the city, Basque organizers simply changed the site and carried on. These celebrations finally became legal in Spain with the death of Franco and granting of regional autonomy to the Spanish region of the Basque country in the late 70's.
Some Basque American communities also celebrated this event. But apart from this, in many ways our local civic picnics/festivals parallel the same sentiment. A similar format with a Basque mass to begin the festivities followed by Basque dancing, singing, sports, etc. is the norm at many Basque-American festivals. The connections between Catholicism and Basque culture is still very apparent at many of our local gatherings.
Aberri Eguna is still celebrated today throughout the Basque country, including the northern provinces that lie in France. Its significance can vary from group to group, but Aberri Eguna remains a celebration of Basque culture and the recognition that the euskaldunak share a unique heritage that deserved the place amongst the people and cultures of the world.
(SOURCES: Robert P. Clark, The Basques: The Franco Years and Beyond (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1979); Stanely G. Payne, Basque Nationalism (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1975); Joe V. Eigrren, The Basque History: Past and Present (Boise, Id: Offset Printer, 1972); Eusko Jaurlaritzako Kultura eta Turismo Saila, Eguna (Vitoria-Gastiez, Araba: Graficas Satamaria, S.A., 1990)]