In many cultures around the world, the winter season brings with it mythical figures and festivals that bring joy and excitement to the darkest and coldest days of the year. In the Basque Country, this beloved figure is known as Olentzero, the Basque Santa Claus, who brings with him a rich tradition and a festive spirit that delights both young and old alike. In this article, we invite you to dive into the fascinating world of Olentzero, get to know who he is, his customs, songs, related characters, where he lives, and the traditions that surround him.
Who Is Olentzero?
To understand Olentzero, we must first explore his origin and how he has evolved over time. His name comes from the Basque words “olesen-aroa,” which mean “time of asking.” Olentzero’s story has deep roots in Basque culture and has undergone significant changes over the centuries.
The Ancient Olentzero: A Threatening Giant
In his origins, Olentzero was considered a threatening and malevolent character. According to legend, he was one of the “jentilak,” giants from Basque mythology, who lived in the forests of the Pyrenees in Navarre, near the village of Lesaka. The story goes that these giants saw a mysterious bright cloud in the sky, which they interpreted as a sign of the imminent birth of Jesus. Fearing the changes this would bring, they took drastic measures. An elderly member of the tribe, nearly blind, could see the cloud and confirmed their fears. He decided to take his own life, and the giants threw him off a cliff. However, on their way back up the mountain, the giants had an accident and perished, except for one: Olentzero. He descended to the valley and, according to the original version, committed violent acts such as cutting the throats of those who overindulged on December 24th.
The Transformation of Olentzero: From Malevolent Giant to Kindly Man
Over time, Olentzero’s story evolved and adapted to be more suitable for children and Christmas festivities. The modern and friendly version of Olentzero portrays him as a humble and generous man. According to this narrative, Olentzero was found as a newborn abandoned in the woods by a fairy with blond hair. She adopted him, gave him his name, and raised him. Over time, Olentzero grew into a strong man who worked as a charcoal maker. But the highlight of this version is that Olentzero had a generous heart and enjoyed crafting wooden toys for children. Every year, he loaded a sack full of toys and distributed them among the children of Basque villages. His robust appearance and love for Christmas made him a beloved character for children.
The Contemporary Olentzero
Today, Olentzero’s figure is a beloved symbol of Christmas in the Basque Country. Although his story has undergone changes over the centuries, his essence as a kind character who brings gifts and joy to children has remained. On Christmas Eve, December 24th, children eagerly await Olentzero’s arrival and the gifts he brings.
Characters Related to Olentzero
In addition to Olentzero the basque santa claus , there are other characters related to Christmas celebrations in the Basque Country.
Mari Domingi is Olentzero’s wife and is an equally important figure in Christmas festivities. She is often depicted accompanying Olentzero in the parades and processions. Together, they represent gender unity in Basque Christmas celebrations.
Basajaun, which means “Lord of the Forest,” is another character related to Basque mythology who is sometimes associated with Olentzero. He is considered a protective spirit of the forests and nature. Although his connection to Olentzero varies by region, they are often depicted together in the celebrations.
In contrast to the imposing figures of the Jentiles and Tartalo, the Galtzagorri are small elves dedicated to aiding humans in accomplishing astonishing tasks. These diminutive beings are known for their dexterity and magical abilities that enable them to perform seemingly impossible tasks.
Tartalo is an iconic figure in Basque mythology, a giant cyclops known for his unique characteristic: he has a single eye in his forehead. This singularity sets him apart among mythical creatures and adds an aura of mystery to his stories. 5 Days in Basque Country Book Tour: 5 Days in Basque Country
Where Does Olentzero Live?
While the exact residence of Olentzero may vary by region, it is believed that he dwells in the Basque mountains. In particular, he is associated with the forests of the Pyrenees, where, according to the original legend, the giant jentilak lived.
Customs and Celebrations Related to Olentzero
The festivities related to Olentzero include a series of customs and celebrations that bring this special season to life in the Basque Country.
Where is Olentzero from?
They lived in the forests of the Pyrenees in Nafarroa, in the area of the village of Lesaka.
Writing Letters to Santa Basque
One of the most deeply rooted customs is for children to write letters to Olentzero in which they request gifts and express their Christmas wishes. These letters are placed in special locations in the house, such as under the Christmas tree or by the fireplace, for Olentzero to find.
Leaving Food for Olentzero
It is also customary for children to leave some food and drink for Olentzero, as he is known to have an insatiable appetite. Bread and water are often part of the offering, ensuring that the beloved character has enough energy for his nighttime gift-giving journey.
Parades and Processions
In many towns in the Basque Country, Navarre, and the French Basque Country, parades and processions are held in honor of Olentzero. These parades usually take place on Christmas Eve and consist of a route through the town where a figure of Olentzero is displayed, often accompanied by Mari Domingi, Olentzero’s wife. During these parades, children can catch a glimpse of Olentzero and receive sweets and gifts.
Traditional Songs of Olentzero
Music plays a crucial role in Olentzero’s festivities. There are numerous traditional songs dedicated to this beloved character. These songs are sung during the parades and processions, as well as in homes while children eagerly await his arrival. Some of the most popular songs include “Olentzero, Olentzero,” “Gure Olentzero,” and “Olentzero eta Mari Domingi.” These songs capture the essence of the Christmas season in the Basque Country and reinforce the festive spirit. Olentzero, the Basque Santa Claus, is a beloved figure that is an integral part of Christmas festivities in the Basque Country. His story, which has evolved over time, reflects the rich cultural tradition of the region. The customs, songs, and characters related to Olentzero contribute to making Christmas in the Basque Country a magical and joyful time for the whole family. If you ever have the opportunity to visit this beautiful region during the Christmas season, don’t miss the chance to meet Olentzero and immerse yourself in his charming world of celebration and generosity. Remember that Olentzero is much more than the Basque equivalent of Santa Claus; he is a fundamental part of Basque cultural identity and a source of joy and unity during the Christmas season. Happy holidays from the Basque Country Santa!
Irene was born and raised in Bilbao. She has a deep rooted passion for her country and culture. She has a Bachelors degree in education and has traveled to over 85 countries throughout the world. List of professional guides in the Basque Country