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Christmas in the Basque Country
For the Basque people Christmas has always been one of the most
well-loved holidays of the year. Having the whole family round to have
Christmas dinner together, our carols and our ancient customs, such as
the Olentzero have always been in the centre of the celebration which
we, as Basque live with great intensity. Because for the Basque people
Christmas means festivals "par excellence". Nowadays as in the rest of
the world, Christmas has become very consumerist, but in Euskadi it is
more than just that. It is the reflection of the history of a country,
with traditions that have been handed down by our ancestors, and which
still remain in almost all of the families in Euskadi.
The Christmas tree is still one of the key references around this time
in Euskadi. Our parents can still remember when the wood was being
collected in Autumn, the way in which the best tree was taken home
The custom still remains. Now there is no need for heifers to drag the
tree back home, but in many homes throughout Euskadi a pine tree or a
Christmas tree decorates the flats and the houses. It is a typical tree
from northern Europe, but a tree which also reflects the respect which
the Basques have towards the "Christmas Tree".
But undoubtedly the tradition which is most deeply rooted in the Basque
Country is the "Olentzero" or coal man. On Christmas Eve, throughout
virtually all the towns in Euskadi, the figure of a shepherd or a coal
man is lifted up, sitting in a basket, onto the shoulders of people who
take it from house to house throughout the town or village, and at every
house that it passes, the young people that accompany the Olentzero stop
to sing a Chrismtas carol.
In Navarra, for example, the Olentzero is a coal man who comes down from
the mountains to hand out chestnuts and wine, and of course presents for
the little ones.
The Olentzero is a mythical Basque character, he is a messenger, a
shepherd who cries out that it is Christmas time throughout all the
corners of the Basque Country. But he is not only a shepherd; in some
parts of Euskadi he is a farm worker and in other parts he is the
coalman, but all of them have in common the fact that they bring good
But the Olentzero has also always been associated with many other
beliefs, such as the deeply rooted Basque cuisine. In Salvatierra in
Alava, for example, the Olentzero is a coalman, who after having lived a
hard life up in the mountains, comes back to his village to bring good
news and at the same time to have a good feast to make up for the hunger
which he has suffered.
This mythical character has a big head, a large belly and according to
local traditions is capable of drinking ten "arrobas" (one arroba is
about twenty-five pounds in weight) of wine. In Hondarribia apart from
carrying a pipe, a capon, some eggs and a bottle of wine, he usually has
a tail made of cod, and if a permanent Olentzero is erected in a
village, a barbecue is usually set up next to him where sardines are
handed out free of charge to the onlookers.
The Christmas carols also make up an important part of the festivities.
The idea is that the carols represent a cheerful greeting which is taken
from houe to house where a verse is dedicated either to the whole family
or to one special member. These songs are still sung within all Basque
Taken from Euskal Etxeak 6-7, page 11.
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