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buber.net > Basque > Folklore > Christmas in the Basque Country
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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 whole.

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 news.

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 families.

Taken from Euskal Etxeak 6-7, page 11.

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