Olentzero (Basque pronunciation: [olents̻eɾo], sometimes
Olentzaro or Olantzaro) is a character in Basque
According to Basque traditions
Olentzero comes to town late at night
on the 24th of December to drop off presents for children. In some
places he arrives later, for example in
Ochagavía – Otsagabia on
the 27th and in
Ermua on the 31st.
1 The name
2 The legend
3 Modern customs and derivation
Olentzero buru handia
7 External links
Olentzero appears in a number of variations: Onenzaro,
Onentzaro, Olentzaro, Ononzaro, Orentzago and others. The earliest
records give the name as Onentzaro and the name is most likely
composed of two elements, on "good" plus a genitive plural ending and
the suffix -zaro which in Basque denotes a season (compare words like
haurtzaro "childhood"), so "time of the good ones" literally. This
suggests a derivation similar to the Spanish nochebuena, but the
origin of Onentzaro, corresponding to the old feast of the winter
solstice, is older than that of
Christmas (which historically replaced
the festival of
Sol Invictus in 380 under
Theodosius I in the Roman
Other theories of derivation exist but are not generally accepted:
from a metathesis of Noël, theory of S. Altube
from a fusion of O Nazarene from Christian liturgy, theory of J.
from oles-aro "alms season", a phonologically impossible derivation by
Julio Caro Baroja
In parts of
Navarre this holiday is called xubilaro or subilaro from
subil, the word for a
Yule log plus the suffix -zaro. In parts of
Navarre the word suklaro is used, a contraction of sekularo.
Sekularo has no clear etymology but is likely to be related to Latin
A figure of
Olentzero being carried through the streets of Barakaldo
There are many variations to the
Olentzero traditions and stories
connected to him, sometimes varying from village to village. The first
written account of
Olentzero is from Lope de Isasti in the 17th
century: A la noche de Navidad (llamamos) onenzaro, la sazón de los
Christmas eve (we call) onenzaro, the season of the good
One common version has
Olentzero being one of the jentillak, a
mythological race of Basque giants living in the Pyrenees. Legend has
it that they observed a glowing cloud in the sky one day. None of them
could look at this bright cloud except for a very old, nearly blind
man. When asked to examine it, he confirmed their fears and told them
that it was a sign that
Jesus would be born soon. According to some
stories, the old man asked the giants to throw him off a cliff to
avoid having to live through Christianisation. Having obliged him, the
giants tripped on the way down and died themselves except Olentzero.
Other versions have the jentillak simply leaving, with only Olentzero
remaining behind to embrace Christianity.
Olentzero legend are reminiscent of a prehistoric cult
rituals surrounding the winter solstice, such as the involvement of
ritual "last meals" and sacrifices of rebirth.
Other versions of the Olentzeroren kondaira, or "history of
Olentzero", tell that as a new born he was abandoned in the woods and
was found by a fairy who gave him the name Olentzero, bestowed gifts
of strength and kindness on him and handed him to an older childless
couple living alone in the woods. He turned into a strong man and
charcoal burner who was also good with his hands, carving wooden toys
that he would carry in a big charcoal bag to give to the children of
the village. It is said that he died one day saving children from a
burning house and that when he died, the fairy who had found him
granted him eternal life to continue to bring joy to children and
Other variations of the legend, customs and the character include:
Areso children would be told to come home early. An adult would
then dress up as
Olentzero and scare the children still out on the
streets with a sickle.
Uharte-Arakil he was traditionally suspended from a rope from a
window, dressed in a straw mantle, in Lekunberri the effigy was
attached to the chimney.
Berastegi if the children did not want to go to bed, a sickle would
be thrown down the chimney and the children told that
come to cut their throats if they didn't go to bed.
in Dima a straw puppet dressed as
Olentzero with a sickle would be
hung from the church tower after the midnight mass on
and if children had been behaving badly, people would say Onontzaro
begi-gorri txaminira da etorri, austen baldin badegu barua, orrek
lepoa kendu guri "
Olentzero with the red eyes has come to the chimney,
if we break the fast, he will cut our throats" - referring to the
traditional fast in the week before Christmas.
Larraun he was called Ononzaro and said to have three eyes and
usually depicted as a drunkard dressed like a scarecrow. People would
ask Ononzaro begi-gorri, non arrapatu duk arrai ori? (
Olentzero of the
red eyes, where did you catch that fish (i.e. inebriation)?) and the
answer would be Bart arratseko amaiketan Zurriolako arroketan (last
night at eleven in the rocks of Zurriola).
Modern customs and derivation
Olentzero alongside other
Christmas symbols at the Bilbao-Loiu airport
Around 1952, after the darkest years of the Franco dictatorship, a
group called Irrintzi Elkartea from
Zarautz began to revive the
Olentzero traditions. Some of the more gruesome elements were
removed to make
Olentzero more suitable for young children and to
remove elements which were deemed too pagan. From 1956 onwards, the
Olentzero traditions began to spread outside those parts of
Gipuzkoa where the traditions hailed from. During the 1970s he began
to take on further new attributes, such as the bringer of gifts in
attempts to find an alternative to the Spanish tradition of the Magi
and the French Père Noël, summed up in the slogan Erregeak,
españolak "the Three Wise Men are Spanish". Today
celebrated all over the Basque Country and coexists with the Magi,
Père Noël and Father Christmas, some families choosing to celebrate
one or more at the same time.
In the modern version,
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,
Olentzero carols and collecting food or sweets (not unlike the
American trick or treat) and the traditions surrounding the holiday of
Santa Ageda in the Basque Country where oles egitea "asking for alms"
is practised. At the end, it is customary in some places to burn the
Olentzero, for example in Lesaka.
Variation is still common, both regionally and culturally depending on
whether the pagan or Christian aspects of Olentzaro are being
emphasised. Near the sea, he is usually takes on more marine
attributes, inland he remains thoroughly rural in nature.
Similar to European
Christmas carols, there are
Olentzero kantak. Two
very common ones are:
Olentzero joan zaigu
Jesus jaio dela
lasterka etorri da
pipa hortzetan dula
Kapoiak ere ba'itu
ezin dugu ase
osorik jan dizkigu
hamar txerri gazte.
Saiheski ta solomo
Jesus jaio delako
atsegin ta poza
jakin baitu mendian
Egun argi honetan
kanpo eta barruan
kendu azkar hotza.
Olentzero has gone
to the mountains to work
with the intention
of making charcoal.
When he heard
Jesus has been born
he came running
to bring news
There is, there is
with the pipe between his teeth
He also has capons
with little eggs,
to celebrate tomorrow
with a bottle of wine.
we can't sate him
he has eaten whole
Ribs and pork loin
so many intestines
Jesus is born
happiness and joy
because he has heard on the mountain
of Jesus' birth.
On this bright day
outside and inside
quickly loose the chill.
Olentzero buru handia
The title translates as "
Olentzero big head". An arroba is an old
measure equivalent to just over 11 kg.
Olentzero buru handia
bart arratsean edan omen du
hamar arroako zahagia.
Ai urde tripahandia!
Ai urde tripahandia!
Olentzero big head
robed in understanding
is said to have drunk last night
a wineskin of ten arrobas
Oh big-bellied pig!
Oh big-bellied pig!
^ Agud, M. Diccionario Etimológico Vasco VII, Donostia 1995
^ Azkue, RM 1905 Diccionario Vasco Español Frances repr. Bilbao 1984
^ http://gaztea.euskonews.com/0421zbk/gaia42108.html Euskonews on
^ http://www.euskonews.com/0421zbk/gaia42101eu.html Euskonews on
Ansorena, J. Euskal kantak, Donostia 1993
Azkue, RM 1934 Euskaleŕiaren Yakintza, repr. Bilbao 1989
Barandiaran, J Dictionnaire Illustré de Mythologie Basque, Donostia
Etxegoien, J. Orhipean, Xamar 1996
Article in the Correo Digital
Media related to
Olentzero at Wikimedia Commons
Olentzero.net, Olentzero's official website of Pamplona-Iruña,
Lesaka, Baiona-Bayonne, among many other locations.
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