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CHRISTMAS

Olentzero: Meet the Basque version of Santa Claus

Move over Santa because there's a pipe-smoking, beret wearing, more rugged version of you living in northern Spain.

Basque kids leave the Olentzero a letter with the presents they want and if they've been good they get them on Christmas Day
Basque kids leave the Olentzero a letter with the presents they want and if they've been good they get them on Christmas DayPhoto: Aiaraldea Gaur eta Heme/Flickr

Those who spend time in Euskal Herria, the Basque area of northern Spain, during the run up to Christmas should look out for the Olentzero,  a pipe-smoking charcoal burner who became the alternative to Santa Claus and the Three Wise Men for more militant Basque parents in the 1970s.

This big-bellied rough-around-the-edges version of Papá Noel has a wife who goes by the name of Mari Domingui, who also dresses in traditional Basque rural garbs, including some smurf-like headgear.

The Olentzero and Maria Domingui at a Christmas Eve parade in Tolosa in 2012. Photo: realjab/Wikipedia

Nowadays the Olentzero tends to work in partnership with his ‘foreign’ present givers in most Basque households, and he also stops by in the French Basque Country and Navarre. He often carries his toys in a charcoal sack or in the baskets of his mule. 

The concept is similar to Christmas in other parts of Europe and the world: Basque kids leave the Olentzero a letter with the presents they want and if they’ve been good they get them on Christmas Day.

In many towns and cities in the Basque Country and Navarre, Olentzero parades are held in which a coal-stained effigy of the present giver is carried through the streets or a couple dressed as the Olentzero and Maria Domingui greet the children. These celebrations were actually outlawed during the Franco dictatorship.

The legend behind Olentzero

Some historians believe Olentzero’s origins can be traced back to pre-Christian Navarre and are linked to pagan winter solstice traditions, although the character was later adapted to conform with Catholic rituals

The story goes that Olentzero began his life as an abandoned infant who is found by a fairy godmother.

After bestowing the child with the gifts of “strength, courage, and love,” the fairy leaves him with a childless couple who raise him as their own in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Olentzero celebrations in the Basque city of San Sebastián in 1931.
Olentzero celebrations in the Basque city of San Sebastián in 1931. Photo: Gure Gipuzkoa Kutxa Fototeka/Wikipedia

Olentzero whittles wooden toys and at Christmas comes down from the mountains to the villages to distribute his crafts among the children.

Then one day as he is taking the gifts to a nearby town he passes a house that is engulfed in flames and charges in to save all the children inside. After performing this heroic deed, however, he perishes in the flames.

But his fairy godmother grants him eternal life so that he can continue to make toys for all the Basque children.

The Olentzero is just another example of how the Basque people have their own culture and traditions that are distinctive from the rest of Spain, coupled with a unique language with no similarity to Castillian Spanish. 

¡Eguberri on! (Happy Christmas in Basque)

READ ALSO: Ten unique Basque words you need to learn right now

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SPANISH TRADITIONS

The Spanish village where locals bet on where a donkey will poo

Spain is home to many weird and wacky festivals, from burning giant sculptures to jumping over babies and chucking wine all over each other, but this one has to be the strangest yet.

The Spanish village where locals bet on where a donkey will poo

In the small village of Alfafara in the province of Alicante in Valencia, the locals celebrate a festival they call ‘la cagá de la burra‘ – translated as ‘the poo of the donkey’.  

The main event of the festival is really very straightforward – the residents of the village must guess the location of where the donkey will poo.  

READ ALSO: Twelve of the best festivals in Spain

The donkey is kept in a field that is divided up into many different squares. Each participant buys a ticket, representing one of these squares, allowing them to bet on a particular plot of land – each one hoping that they have predicted the correct spot.

Afterward, all that remains is to wait and see who is the winner.

Each person is allowed to buy up to three tickets at €5 each, essentially giving them three chances at getting it right. 

Some locals believe that choosing a plot in the sun is the best as these squares will have the most grass for the donkey to eat.  

While participants are waiting, there is a festival atmosphere with plenty of music, eating and drinking.  

If the donkey poos in more than one plot, the area with the most poo will be the winning spot.  

The prizes can be up to €600, or €200 if the box is divided further.  

The festival and its important competition were created in order to raise money for the local Three Kings’ parade on the night of January 5th, and is now in its fourth year. 

It has already become popular and has begun to attract visitors from nearby towns and villages too.

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