Basque Christmas

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Christmas is enthusiastically celebrated by the Basque inhabitants of northern Spain. Manyt of the customs are common to Spain but two apsects of the Basque celebrations stand out: the many Christmas songs in their unique language and the figure of the Olentzero.

Carols have been composed in the Basque tongue since at least the sixteenth century and since then the region has produced a number whose fame has reached beyond its borders.  They include “Oi! Betllem” (O Bethehem), “Aur txiki” (Lovely Baby Mary Bore Him), “Belen’en sortu zaigu” (In Mid-winter They Set Out); and “Birjinia gaztettotbat zegoen” (The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came.) Basque tunes were used by the English composer Sabine Baring-Gould for three of his carols: “Gabriel’s Message”, “The Infant King” and “Lullay My Liking”.

 The Olentzero is a legendary figure, usually portrayed as a charcoal burner or a shepherd, who comes down from the mountains at Christmas time to announce the coming of the joyful season, to partake in its festivities and hand out gifts. He is not a handsome figure, but a vigorous one dressed in beret and typical Basque garb, capable of prodigious feats of celebrating. In many villages his image is carried through the streets on the shoulders of folk who take it from house to house singing carols.

Numerous fiestas are held in the Basque country during the Christmas season beginning with those on St. Nicholas Day, December 6, when parades of children will process through the streets singing songs about the saint and telling the stories of his amazing career. Saint Lucia fairs (December 13) and Saint Thomas fairs (December 21) will bring farmers into towns to show their produce. On Christmas Eve in  village of Labastida groups of shepherds, draped in pelts, will recite ancient verses and perform dances which are likely remmants of medieval pastoral drama.

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