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Christmas in the Basque Country With Olentzero

written by: Michele McDonough • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 11/25/2012

He may not be Santa Claus, but there are a lot of similarities between the modern Olentzero of Basqueland and his jolly, red-suited cousin. Read on to learn more about the story behind this present-day Christmas figure in the Basque Country.

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    The Euskal Herria: West of the Pyrenees

    Almost every region of the world has its own Christmas or Winter Solstice traditions, and the Basque Country is no exception. If you happen to find yourself in Euskal Herria during the Christmas season, you may be surprised to witness children marching through the streets carrying a life-size figure of a man dressed in the historic clothing of the Basque peasant farmer. This figure is a representation of Olentzero, a very special part of the Basque Christmas tradition.

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    Legend of Olentzero

    The story of Olentzero is one that has seen many changes over the centuries. Nowadays, the tale of Olentzero closely resembles that of characters such as Santa Claus and Father Christmas. A popular rendition of the modern Olentzero was written by Angel Benito Gastañaga under the title Olentzero: Izena duan guztia omen da. A complete English translation of this tale can be found here.

    In this children’s story, Olentzero begins his life as an abandoned infant who is found and raised by a fairy. After blessing the baby with the gifts of “strength, courage, and love," the fairy leaves him with a childless couple who raise him as their own. Many years later, following the death of his adopted parents, Olentzero begins making toys that he will distribute to orphans in a nearby town.

    On one particular day, as Olentzero is taking his gifts to the children in town, he catches sight of a burning house. He immediately runs in the house and is able to save all of the children inside, but he perishes in the flames before being able to get himself out of the blazing structure. The fairy that had rescued him as an infant sees what happened and decides to return Olentzero to life for all of the good deeds he has performed in his lifetime. Not only does the fairy save Olentzero from death, but she grants him eternal life so that he can continue to make and distribute toys to all orphans in Basque Country.

    Loosely translated, the Basque phrase “Izena duan guztia omen da" means “Everything that has a name exists." In the closing pages of Gastañaga’s tale, he emphasizes the idea behind this philosophy: As long as you believe in Olentzero, his message will continue to live.

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    Traditional Celebrations

    In modern celebrations during the Christmas season in Basqueland, children dress in traditional peasant garb and parade through the streets with an adult-sized representation of Olentzero while singing humorous songs written in the mythical figure’s honor. It’s also a fairly common practice to hand out candy and treats to the costumed children, similar to the manner in which Halloween is celebrated in the United States.

    The type of festivities and the appearance of Olentzero can vary a lot from region to region, depending on the history and geography of the locale. However, the joyous mood in the air remains a constant throughout all these celebrations, and it’s definitely not something you want to miss if you ever have the opportunity to visit the area during late December. If you don’t have time to brush up on the Basque language, at least practice saying the one phrase “Eguberri on!" before your trip. This literally translates to “Happy new day!" and is the traditional Christmas greeting in Basque Country.

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