Today, November 1, is a public holiday throughout the Basque Country coinciding with the Christian holiday of All Saints’ Day. Tomorrow, November 2, is likewise All Souls’ Day, and these celebrations convey the bond between the living and the departed.
From the pre-Christian tradition, likewise, there are hundreds of dolmen and cromlech stone circle sites in the Basque Country. These are believed to be burial places intended to honor the dead and may contain one or several corpses. For William Douglass and Joseba Zulaika, (Basque Culture: Anthropological Perspectives, p. 52), “Generally, the higher the elevation, the smaller and simpler the dolmens, which possibly reflects a basic geographical distinction between lowland and highland peoples in terms of socioeconomic development.” Well into the modern age, on coming across one of these sites on remote mountainsides, shepherds would remove their txapelak (berets) and say a prayer for the deceased there.
With the coming of Christianity, cemeteries became the final resting place for the departed and one interesting feature of Basque cemeteries is the impressive range of funeral stelae (bilarriak in Basque) with their intricate carvings of animals, crosses, stars, suns and more abstract patterns. Moreover, all baserriak (Basque farmhouses) were typically connected to their local churches and cemeteries by means of an hil bide (death road). Moreover, in the words of Douglass and Zulaika, (Basque Culture, p. 296), “a death triggers an all-encompassing series of formal obligations among the survivors defined in terms of their genealogical proximity to the deceased and residential proximity to his or her baserria.”
There are many rituals associated with death in traditional Basque culture. One is the practice of spreading news of a death to not just the local community, but also the animals, especially the bees, for which special respect has always been reserved. A common saying in Bera, Nafarroa was: Etxeko andrea hil da, ta egizu argizeri aunitz, zerua bidaltzeko (The mistress of the house has died, make a lot of wax to send her to heaven). This shows the importance, too, of offering light. Light was thought to be essential when passing over into the other world, and for that reason, all kinds of torches, tapers, and candles hold special importance in Basque funerary rituals. To this day, many Basque homes are adorned with an argizaiola (board of wax), a wooden board with a long coiled candle.
Nowadays, of course, the global reach of Halloween has come to the Basque Country, with people—and especially children—getting into the spirit of things with fancy dress costumes and going out in search of candy. Candlelit pumpkins have even been spotted presiding over Bilbao cityscapes!
Additional information is taken from Xamar, Orhipean: The Country of Basque.
Check out, too, William A. Douglass, Death in Murelaga: Funerary Ritual in a Spanish Basque Village (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1969).