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Oiartzun (#26)

Olentzero in Oiartzun

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Friday, 21st of December, 2007. Olentzero is a clumsy personage, collier and therefore his face dirty with coal. A pipe in his mouth and normally seated over a basket full of apples.

But what is the origin of Olentzero? Who was Olentzero?

To be truthful, we are not totally sure from when this tradition started but herewith a theory of our personage.

In the old times, for the pagan countries, the months of June and December were sacred ones as they hold the shortest and the longest days of the year.Towards the 21st of December festivities called Olerias were celebrated and people danced and sung through the streets screaming “Oleska” in Basque. Therefore, that festivity is called “Olesaro” (oles=to sing or scream and aro=time, epoch)

Within the festivity of Olensaro, the most important event is "Eguberri" (eguzki=sun, berri=new).

The principal character of the festivity was Olentzero ( Oles=sing, scream, ero= crazy). This character could have been either a real person or a dummy.

Christianity arrived to the Basque Country much later to other countries and therefore, allowed pagan habits to perdure. The new religion, fitly, respected these habits, however included in them new Christian symbology.

The June fires, of clear pagan origin and of fertilization of earth, were adapted to honour St Jean. Therefore the habit survived but with a different sense.

With Olentzero, same thing occurred. When the 25th of December as Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus, the days towards the end of the year were taking a very religious sense very similar to which pagan Basques were celebrating the 21st of December as the shortest day of the year. When they converted to Christianity, they did the same to Olentzero. As a result the symbol of the festivity of Olerias transformed itself into a messenger of the birth of Christ.

The Olentzero we have now is not the old pagan character but a personage with Christian symbology.

On the other hand the clothing of the personage has been changing according to fashion and through time. Therefore in the old times he used to wear a “kapusai” like a coat with a hood but some 200 years ago started using txapela-Basque beret- Taking into consideration that tobacco came from America, we can suppose that the pipe was recent as well as some other parts of his clothing.

As it becomes evident, although Olentzero is a character older that Christianization, it has been renovated through the years by its own people, getting adapted to the new times, and giving therefore new life to the old tradition.

OLENTZERO AT HOMEIn Oiartzun, some days prior to Christmas Eve, the “etxekoandre”- lady of the house-chooses a thick log to feed the fire where the food for Olentzero day, will be cooked. The log is called Olentzero-enbor (Olentzero log)

When the day arrives and after having had lunch, the log gets into the chimney in order to start preparing Olentzero dinner- Olentzero afaria). The actual fire is got to be large.

The preferred dishes for Olentzero dinner are zurruputuna which is a soup without meat and containing bits of codfish, azaolio, cabbage with oil, grilled sea bream, escargots in sauce and chestnuts. To drink, cider. This way appears in the annuary ofthe Eusko-Folklore Society in 1922, according to the reputed local writer Mr Manuel Lekuona.

In the old times, the log used for the cooking fire, was set in front of the house for the cattle to pass over it and therefore to be protected for certain illnesses.

OUTDOORDuring the day, groups of kids go from house to house asking for money or food, holding an Olentzero on a cart-an ugly dummy made out of rags or straw, seated on a chair. The cart’s sides are ornated with parsley bouquets made out to be a throne for the personage. Sometimes, instead of carrying a dummy, the kids are dressed as Olentzero.

The groups are normally composed by the 4 children holding the cart, the one with the money/goods bag and the koplari or singer.

Night time, is the young lads the ones out and about asking for goods and money, with a dummy or with someone dressed as Olentzero, face black from coal, a pipe in his mouth and a street lamp in his hand.

By Joxe Mari Mitxelena

21 December 2007

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