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OLENTZERO: The Basque Santa Claus

Related links:  Olentzero.net    YouTube link    Eguberri (Christmas) Songs    www.eitb.com

I
n 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.    But 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.

We 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).

Now 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.


The new,
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.

He 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:
OLENTEZEROREN BORDA.

SOURCES:  The Basque Educational Organization of San Francisco, Orhipean:  Gure Herria Ezagutzen (Irunea:  Lamia, 1992): 81-82; web: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olentzero ]


Here is a kids version of the story

Hona hemen horietako baten kondaira...

The 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.  Aske's version comes from the children's book Olentzero: Izena duan guztia omen da by Angel Benito Gastañaga.  He has included the first few words from each page of the original Basque version so that you can follow the book, if you have it.

 

OLEN BERTSIO.gif (77326 bytes)~ Olentzero ~

· Betidanako gure basoetan ...

In the 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.

When we go through our mountains and our valleys, from a wonderful corner of the imagination they keep us company and take care of us.

Hona hemen horietako baten kondaira...

Here is 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 imaginary.

· Behin batean ...

Once 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.

Lamia guztiek bezala, ...

Like 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.

· Egun batez, ...

One 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.

Lamia bere ile kizkurra ...

The fairy kept brushing and brushing her curly hair and didn't notice anything until Prakagorris' shouts caught her attention.

· Gizakume bat da hori.

"It's a human baby," said the oldest of the goblins.

"Why did they leave it here?" said all the Prakagorris at once.

"I don't know," said the fairy, "it is hard to understand how humans can be so heartless sometimes."

Gaurtik aurrera, ...

"From 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."

Then 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 ...

"They 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.

Very 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!"

Just as 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.

Honela mendi zoragarri haietan ...

And 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.

After 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 forest.

· Urteak joan, urteak etorri ...

The years came and went and his face began to wrinkle and his hair began to turn white.

Bere bihotza goibeltzen ...

Living alone made him sad and he realized that what he needed to do was to help other people who needed his help.

He 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 his coal.

· Panpina eta gizontxoak bukatu zituenean ...

When he 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.

Goiz guztia eman zuen mendiz mendi ...

It took 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 ...

The 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 children.

Urte asko, eder eta zoriontsu ...

This 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.

· Egun batez, ...

One day, when Olentzero was coming to town, he saw lightning hit a house.

He quickly ran to the house and he saw some children at one of the windows, very scared, screaming and calling for help.

Without 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 ...

But 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.

The 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.

Une larri hartan ...

But 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!"

· Gizon handia izan zara ...

She 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 Basque Country."

· Guk lagundu egingo dizugu!

"And we will help you!" called out all the Prakagorri, flying around Olentzero.

Honela, ...

And 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.

Some 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 it does.

 

Olentzero joan zaigu
mendira lanera,
intentzioarekin
ikatz egitera.
Aditu duenean
Jesus jaio dela
lasterka etorri da
berri ematera.
Horra horra
gure Olentzero
pipa hortzetan dula
eserita dago.
Kapoiak ere ba'itu
arraultzatxoekin
bihar meriendatzeko
botila ardoakin.
Olentzero gurea
ezin dugu ase
osorik jan dizkigu
hamar txerri gazte.
Saiheski ta solomo
horrenbeste heste
Jesus jaio delako
erruki zaitezte.
Olentzerok dakarzki
atsegin ta poza
jakin baitu mendian
Jesusen jaiotza.
Egun argi honetan
alaitu bihotza
kanpo eta barruan
kendu azkar hotza.
Olentzero has gone
to the mountains to work
with the intention
of making charcoal.
When he heard
that Jesus has been born
he came running
to bring news
There is, there is
our Olentzero
with the pipe between his teeth
he sits.
He also has capons
with little eggs,
to celebrate tomorrow
with a bottle of wine.
Our Olentzero
we can't sate him
he has eaten whole
ten piglets.
Ribs and pork loin
so many intestines
because Jesus is born
have mercy.
Olentzero brings
happiness and joy
because he has heard on the mountain
of Jesus' birth.
On this bright day
heart, rejoice
outside and inside
quickly loose the chill.