With the holiday season almost upon us, I’d like to mention a few traditional Basque customs at this time of year. Thanks in advance to the book Orhipean: The Country of Basque by Xamar (Juan Carlos Etxegoien Juanarena), a charming and beautifully illustrated general introduction to Basque culture from which the information for this post is taken.

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An old picture of an effigy of Olentzero being carried through the streets of Oiartzun, Gipuzkoa. Photo by Bernardo Oñatibia,  courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The main folk custom that has become increasingly important during the Christmas season is that of Olentzero. This is a Santa Claus/Father Christmas-type figure, a plump jolly mountain charcoal burner in traditional Basque dress who visits the towns and villages of the Basque Country on December 24. The origins of the name Olentzero are disputed. It could be a derivative of onentz-aro (a time of good will), but Xamar favors the notion of olentz-aro (collection time or alms season) when charitable donations or alms were collected from house to house.

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Olentzero and Mari Domingi in Tolosa, Gipuzkoa. Photo at Wikimedia Commons.

The Olentzero custom differs from town to town. Typically, an Olentzero effigy was made, carried through the streets of a particular village, and subsequently burned. This custom continues to this day in, for example, Lesaka, Nafarroa. However, it is becoming increasingly typical for people to dress up as Olentzero and distribute gifts, more in the style of a Basque Santa Claus. Olentzero has even been joined by a female counterpart, Mari Domingi, the protagonist of a traditional Basque folk song.

Another custom with a certain resonance for many of us is that of the yule log, which in Basque tradition was known generically as the bazterreko (literally, from/of the corner or side), but also many other variants such as Olentzero emborra, Xubilau atseko egurra, or Gabon subil, for example. This was a special log set aside to be burned on the home fire during the Christmas season. If the log was big enough, the hope was that it would burn right through the season, from Christmas Eve through the New Year. In other homes, however, each family member would have their own special log to put on the fire. The log and even its embers were considered a good luck charm (for example, it was believed that no untimely accident would befall any of the domestic animals that passed over it).

The evenings of both Christmas Eve (Gabon gaua) and New Year’s Eve (Gabon zaharra or Urte zaharra) are a time of song, with groups of people going from house to house–as in the above videos from Zaldibia and Ataun (both in Gipuzkoa)–or even bar to bar, singing koplak or traditional Basque songs (not unlike carol singers in some respects). Traditionally, in some places such as Elgoibar, Gipuzkoa and Larrauri, a hamlet of Mungia, Bizkaia, as well as many villages in Zuberoa, young women and men would also gather in the main square to dance. Meanwhile, in Bera, Nafarroa, there is a New Year’s Eve custom whereby children go from house doing glin-glanka–a version of trick or treating in which if people don’t give them something (typically walnuts or chestnuts) some mishap will befall them.

Finally, and perhaps most distinctively, the new water custom was observed (and still is in some places today). At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s, groups of young people would gather with empty jugs at village wells, ready to collect the “new water” that they would then take around the village offering to people as a symbol of peace and health for the coming year.

In the words of a traditional verse from Baztan, Nafarroa:

Urte berri, berri                      New, new year

zer dakartzu berri?               what new do you bring?

Uraren gañean                        On the water

bakia ta osasuna.                   peace and health.

Urtets, Urtets!                         A New Year gift, a New Year gift!

We couldn’t agree more!

Zorionak eta urte berri on!