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many cultures where the seasons change and winter is harsh, there is
oftentimes a winter celebration figure or mythical personage
around whom the festive revelries of midwinter revolve. This
ritual serves as the hub of
activities around which the clan, the community and the nation
identifies in their collective attempt to break the wintry chill of
outdoor inactivity and to fill the still, sometimes foreboding silence
of the snowclad countryside. Whether this figure is called "Papa Noel,"
"Santa Claus," or "Olentzero," the motif is the same.
the Olentzero didn't start out being a Santa Claus figure. The
story of how this happened shows some creative license.
Some of today's celebrated
traditions were derived from
Christian influence, but others are products of older religions. The
pre-Christian era celebrated the end/beginning of a year, while for
Christians their year end/beginning was Easter. So the older
tradition was assimilated and Christians
moved the celebration of the birth of Christ to this season. There are
various ways of saying Christmas in Euskara, including "Gabonak
and "Natibitate," but the most widespread term is "Eguberria" or
"new-day" in Basque.
Today we know the Olentzero as the mythic winter
figure, but he takes his name from an older custom. The word "olentzero"
is the combination of two words--olesen-aroa--which gives us an
indication of the figures significance.
The meaning of "aroa" is
clear, meaning "time" or "season," but "olesen" is an old Basque word
that is preserved only in old folk-songs. From Otxandiano, Bizkaia
comes the verse: Aterik ate oleska,/
beldurtu barik aize hotzaz/ hemen gaituzu kantatu naiez/ irigi zuen
bihotzak. And from Urdiaingo in
Nafarroa: Olez, olez/ bakallu jalez/ bost eta sei hamaika/ txorixorik ez balin
badago/ igual dela lukainka.
Peru Abarka, in a 19th
century book, writes: Olesa ta ate-jotea da, nor ote dogu? From this
context, we see that "oles" means to call or ask, and in many other
songs it is also associated with collecting presents.
can trace the transformation of the word from "olesen-aroal" to "olezen-aroa" to
"olentsen-aro" to "olentzen-aroa"
and finally to Olentzero.
Olentzero, for earlier Basques, was the
season of asking from house to house. This custom is still maintained
in some Basque villages as the youth go from house to house, dancing and
singing, collecting food or money to prepare a special meal.
Like a good many things Basque, we do not
have certitude as to the exact origins of this winter personage.
Over the centuries the "story" of Olentzero has been adapted. The
first written account of Olentzero is from Lope de Isasi back in the
16th century. In his account, the character is called "Onentzaro," and
his version tells of a time thousands of years ago when there was a
tribe of jentilak (giants in Basque mythology) and Olentzero was
one of them. They lived in the forests of the Pyrenees in Nafarroa, in
the area of the village of Lesaka.
One day the people of this tribe discovered
a glowing cloud in the sky. They feared that this celestial phenomenon
was the divine sign of the arrival of the imminent birth of Jesus.
None of them could look at this bright cloud except for a very old,
nearly blind man. They held him up to take a look. He turned pale and
confirmed their wildest fear: "Yes, this is the sign, Jesus will be born
soon". They feared that vast changes would come with the arrival of
Jesus and the demise of their way of life. After foreseeing this
terrible news, the old man only saw a solution in terminating his life.
So he asked his giant friends to throw him off the highest cliff. They
complied. But on the way back down the mountain, the group of giants
tripped head over heels and fell to their death. All, except one. The
only survivor Olentzero hiked to the villages in the valley and with his
sickle brutally cut the throat of those people who ate too much on the
day before the arrival of Christ, i.e. on the 24th of December. He
himself was not the fasting type. He was a thick glutton who could eat
huge quantities of meat which he washed down with strong liquor. No
surprise that he was frequently drunk and irritable (and sometimes
depicted with a bottle nearby).
of course this wasn't a "feel good" story for the holidays, so over the
last century this legend was adapted because young children didn't like
to hear about a grumpy giant who sliced open the throat of normal
citizens and let them bleed to death. A more civilized version had to be
created. More precisely the church wanted to shift pagan rites to be
associated with Christian traditions. In this case, the church wanted to
turn the pagan custom related to the winter solstice into a Christian
feast with a Christian-like hero. Furthermore, Basque nationalism
wanted an alternative to the Spanish tradition of the Magi (Three Kings)
and the French and North European Pere Noel or Santa Claus.
cleansed, Christianized version of the story is of Olentzero as a human,
a humble man with a heart filled with love. As a new born he was
left alone in the woods where a fairy with long blond hair found him,
adopted him, gave him the name Olentzero and raised him. He turned into
a strong man and worked as a charcoal maker.
was hard-working and gifted with his hands. He carved wooden animals,
toys and dolls. When he had a big charcoal bag full of toys he hiked to
the village in the valley and distributed the wooden figures amongst the
children because he liked to see them happy. He played with them all
afternoon. The kids loved him and Olentzero came back whenever he had
finished another bag of toys. Whenever he came to the village the kids
surrounded him. One day as he came down to the village he found a house
in flames. He dashed towards the house finding crying children behind
the closed windows. Without hesitation he ran into the house and freed
them by lowering them from an upstairs window. With everyone safe he
went downstairs when the house collapsed under the fire, burying him.
The people from the village had gathered by now outside the burning
ruins and they suddenly saw a white flash leaving the flames and heading
towards the sky. The fairy that had found him in the woods had come to
be with him in this moment. She said, "Olentzero you have such a good
heart, you even gave your life for others. You should not die. You shall
live forever, making toys for all the children in this village and in
the whole Basque country." And that is now how the story is told
so that on
the 24th of December, the Olentzero makes his annual appearance.
His image is
conjured up by villagers, sometimes made of paper mache, sometimes even
a carved figure. His
image changes from place to place, but he is characteristically dressed
in the traditional "baserri" or peasant farmer's garb of dark pants
tucked into socks below the knees; "abarkak" or leather, rope tied
shoes; a dark overshirt sometimes with a coat of natural wool; a black
beret, staff and a smoking pipe. He is paraded through the
streets, choral groups accompanying him comprised mostly of youthful choristers,
dressed in similar costume and bundled up for protection from the
chilling wintry winds.
For more information,
including songs click on:
Here is a kids version of the story
Hona hemen horietako
above explanation is fine for historical context, but it of course lacks
what is most required to get kids to listen: drama. Jon Aske has
translated and secularized the story of the Basque Olentzero, thecoal
maker who made toys for poor children.
version comes from
the children's book Olentzero: Izena
duan guztia omen da by Angel Benito Gastañaga.
included the first few words from each page of the original Basque
version so that you can follow the book, if you have it.
Betidanako gure basoetan ...
forests of our country, there are many different kinds of creatures that
people can't see. They are all part of nature, and people have written
many stories and fables about them.
go through our mountains and our valleys, from a wonderful corner of the
imagination they keep us company and take care of us.
hemen horietako baten kondaira...
the story of one of those beings, the story of Olentzero, a humble man
who with his love comes into the heart of all creatures, real and
upon a time, many many years ago, in the deep forests of the Basque
Country, there lived a very beautiful fairy. Her hair was yellow like
the sun and her eyes were very bright.
guztiek bezala, ...
all fairies, she looked after the people and she was always accompanied
by some little and funny creatures, like goblins, called Prakagorri, or
"red-pants," who helped her with her work.
day, when she was traveling through the mountains, she stopped to brush
her hair next to a fountain. Suddenly, the Prakagorris noticed that
something was moving among the ferns.
bere ile kizkurra ...
fairy kept brushing and brushing her curly hair and didn't notice
anything until Prakagorris' shouts caught her attention.
Gizakume bat da hori.
human baby," said the oldest of the goblins.
did they leave it here?" said all the Prakagorris at once.
don't know," said the fairy, "it is hard to understand how humans can be
so heartless sometimes."
now on," said the fairy to the baby, "your name will be Olentzero, for
it is wonderful thing to have found you. And I hereby give you the gifts
of Strength, Courage and Love, for as long as you live."
the fairy picked up the baby and took him to an old house at the edge of
the forest where there lived a man and a woman who had no children.
Horien bihotza ...
will be very, very happy to receive this child and they will take good
care of it, I know" said the fairy, and she left the boy there in front
of the door for them.
early in the morning, when the sun was just starting to come out, the
man came out of the house to go milk the cows. He was very surprised to
see the baby, and he called to his wife: "My love, come quickly! Come
and see what I've found!"
the fairy had predicted, the man and the woman were very, very happy to
find this child. "How could we be so lucky!", said the woman. And
immediately they covered the boy with a warm blanket and gave him some
food, and they took him as their son.
mendi zoragarri haietan ...
that is how Olentzero came to grow up in those wonderful mountains,
until he became a strong, healthy and lovable man. His parents were very
happy and Olentzero was not at all worried about the strange way in
which his parents had come to find him.
Goizetik arratseraino ...
Olentzero worked every day from morning till night, making coal and
helping his aging father.
many years the old couple who had been Olentzero's loving parents
finally died and Olentzero was left all alone in the house in the
Urteak joan, urteak etorri ...
years came and went and his face began to wrinkle and his hair began to
bihotza goibeltzen ...
alone made him sad and he realized that what he needed to do was to help
other people who needed his help.
remembered that in the town there was a house where there lived some
children who had no parents. They lived on whatever the people in the
town gave them, and he realized that these children were very lonely,
just like him, and that he could do things for them to make them happy.
Olentzero gizon argia zen ...
Olentzero was very clever and very good at making things with his hands,
so he made some toys out of wood for those children: little toys and
dolls, which he would take to the children when he went to town to sell
Panpina eta gizontxoak bukatu zituenean ...
finished the dolls and other toys, he put them in a big bag, put the bag
on his donkey, and left for the town. He felt very happy inside that
day, and his eyes were shining very brightly.
guztia eman zuen mendiz mendi ...
him a whole morning of walking through the mountains to get to the town,
but he was very happy. He smiled as if in a dream, for he was going to
give to the children the toys that he had made.
Herriko txikiek ...
little children in the village were very happy too when they got their
presents, and Olentzero spent the afternoon playing with them and
telling them stories he had learned from his father when he was little.
The boys and girls loved Olentzero very much and after that day they
didn't feel as lonely as before. Olentzero became very well known in
that town. Whenever he approached, he would quickly be surrounded by
asko, eder eta zoriontsu ...
went on for many beautiful and happy years, but one time there was a
terrible storm in the town and the mountains around it which destroyed
many things. The cold, strong winds and the sound of thunder left the
people very scared and upset, especially the children.
day, when Olentzero was coming to town, he saw lightning hit a house.
quickly ran to the house and he saw some children at one of the windows,
very scared, screaming and calling for help.
hesitating he went into the house, which was in flames, covered the
children with a blanket to protect them from the fire, and carried them
out of the house through a window in the first floor.
Beretzat irtenbide bat ...
while he was trying to get out himself, a big old wooden beam from the
ceiling fell on top of him. Olentzero fell down in great pain, and his
strong and beautiful heart stopped.
people in the town cried when they saw the house in flames, and what had
happened, and realized that there was nothing they could do.
larri hartan ...
right then they were all surprised by a bright light shining from inside
the burning house. Nobody could see what was happening inside. But
inside the house, the fairy who had found Olentzero in the mountains,
when he was a baby so many years ago, appeared next to Olentzero and
began calling his name in her sweet voice: "Olentzero! Olentzero!"
handia izan zara ...
said: "Olentzero, you have been a good man, faithful and kind hearted.
You have spent your life doing things for others, and you have even
given your own life to save others. So I do not want you to die. I want
you to live forever. From now on you will make toys and other presents
for children who do not have parents in this town and everywhere in the
lagundu egingo dizugu!
will help you!" called out all the Prakagorri, flying around Olentzero.
that is how it came to pass that, in the middle of every winter, at the
end of every year, Olentzero goes to all the towns of Basque Country
delivering toys and presents to children who don't have parents and
grandparents to give them presents. The children in all the towns
celebrate the coming of the Olentzero by singing songs and spreading his
message of love, strength and courage.
people don't believe that Olentzero really exists. But in Basque there
is an old saying: that everything that has a name exists, if we believe