24 December 2009
Ancient Basque traditions remain alive and strong over winter solstice
For the Basque people, Christmas has always been one of the best-loved holidays of the year. Having the whole family round for Christmas dinner, our carols and our ancient customs, such as Olentzero, have always been at the centre of the celebrations. As Basques we live with great intensity, and for us Christmas means festivals "par excellence".
Nowadays, as in the rest of the world, Christmas has become a very consumerist affair, but in the Basque Country it is something more as well: It is the reflection of a country's history, with traditions that have been handed down by our ancestors, and which still remain in many families. It's also a time to remember those who are away from home, specially the Basque political prisoners and exiles. All across the country hundreds of vigils are organised in Christmas eve in support of them and relatives and friends carry their pictures and banners at the Olentzero parades.
The Christmas tree remains one of the key references this time of year in the Basque Country. Our parents can still remember the wood being collected in Autumn, and the way in which the best tree was taken home still intact. This custom continues. Now there is no need for a heifer to drag the tree back home, but many homes are decorated with a Christmas tree. The tree is typical of northern Europe, but reflects the fondness Basques have for the Christmas tree tradition.
But undoubtedly the tradition most deeply rooted in the Basque Country is that of "Olentzero" or coal man. On Christmas Eve, throughout virtually all Basque towns and villages, 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; at every house it passes, the young people accompanying the Olentzero stop to sing a Christmas carol.
In Navarre, 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. He is a mythical Basque character; a messenger; a shepherd who cries out that it is Christmas time in all the corners of the Basque Country. But he is not only a shepherd; in some parts he is a farm worker and in others he is the coalman; either way, they are all bringers of good news.
The Olentzero has also been associated with many other beliefs and customs, such as the deeply-rooted tradition of 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 have a great 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, aside from carrying a pipe, a capon, some eggs and a bottle of wine, he usually has a tail made of cod, and if a village erects an Olentzero for Christmas, a barbecue is usually set up next to him where sardines are handed out free of charge.
Christmas carols also make up an important part of the festivities. The idea is that they represent a cheerful greeting which is taken from house to house; a verse is dedicated either to the whole family or to one special member. These songs continue to be sung in all Basque families.