For the last few years, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a lovely young Spanish lady at one of my schools. She has Basque heritage and last year, when I put on the ‘villancicos’ whilst we carried out our Christmas activities she asked if we could listen to Ole Olentzero. I obliged and the class were fascinated by the costumes and the unfamiliar words.
This year, today in fact, she asked once more if we could listen to it. I’d forgotten about it to be honest until I started it, but the class recognised it immediately. Here it is:
I decided to do some research and discovered that “Olentzero is a character in the Basque Christmas tradition. According to Basque traditions Olentzero comes to town late at night on the 24th of December to drop off presents for children.” There are various explanations of the origins of the tradition. One has Olentzero as one of jentillak, a mythological race of giants that lived in the Pyrenees. Another suggests that a newborn baby was found in the woods by fairies, blessed with the name Olentzero as well as kindness and strength and gifted to a childless couple. He grew to be a strong man who was a charcoal burner and made wooden toys that he gifted to children, and is said to have died saving children from a burning house leading to the fairies granting him eternal life.
“Nowadays, Olentzero is depicted as a lovable character, widely attributed to being overweight, having a huge appetite and thirst. He is depicted as a Basque peasant wearing a Basque beret, a farmer’s attire with traditional abarketa shoes and smoking a pipe. Whether he has a beard or not is not yet an established tradition. Sometimes his face is stained with charcoal, as a sign of his trade as a charcoal-burner. On Christmas Eve, groups of people or children carry effigies of Olentzero around on a chair through the streets, singing Olentzero carols and collecting food or sweets. At the end, it is customary in some places to burn the Olentzero.”
You can find out more about how the legend/story has developed here and you find an English translation of the story here. There’s also a short presentation about Christmas in the Basque country on Slideplayer.
Finally I discovered that there’s an old Basque proverb : Anything, anyone with a name exists if we believe in its/his/her existence. I think that could apply to many Christmas traditions!
Next year I shall have to remember to play this song as N is moving to Australia next week; perhaps we’ll have to Skype her! I wish her well.
Merry Christmas! ¡Feliz Navidad! Eguberri On!