When the season changes and winter becomes harsher, it is time for winter celebrations in many cultures. There are several figures or mythical dignitaries around whom the festive celebrations of midwinter revolve. The period becomes marked for a series of activities encircling a clan, a community and even, an entire nation. Celebrations like these are communal endeavors to break the monotony and gloom of the wintry chill outside. These celebrations also instill the spirit to fill the quiet, and often ominous, silence of the snow-clad countryside, with joy and merriment. An important figure who has been associated with these celebrations is, 'Olentzero'. Despite related to Christmas now, the story of Olentzero didn't initially resemble that of Santa Claus's. In fact, the story of how this figure came into existence is somewhat bizarre. Olentzero, today, is known as a mythical winter figure and his name has roots in ancient customs. The following section has all the necessary and interesting information about 'The Basque Santa Claus'.
The Basque Santa Claus
Olentzero originated from the combination of two words that are used in Basque. The first word 'Olesen' is mostly used in old folk songs and means 'call' or 'ask' and the second word 'aroa' means 'clear' or 'time' or 'season'.
The story of Olentzero has undergone considerable changes over centuries. One of the stories dates back to thousands of years, just before birth of Jesus. According to the story, Olentzero belonged to a tribe named Jentilak, who lived in village Lesaka, situated in forests of the Pyrenees in Nafarroa. During one of the winter nights, people of this tribe saw a glowing cloud in the sky, which they mistook as the star of Christ. None of them could see clearly except for an old and nearly blind man, who confirmed that this was a sign that Jesus will be born soon. People of Jentilak feared that the arrival of Jesus would bring an end to their old practices and so, after conveying the message, the old man thought that the only way to avoid living with Christians is to end his life. He thus asked his fellow men to kill him by pushing him from the highest cliff. His friends did what he asked them to do but, on their way home, the group of his giant friends tripped down and nobody survived except Olentzero. It is said that since then, Olentzero, enraged at Christianity, punished all those who celebrated Christmas.
According to another version, Olentzero was a craftsperson who used to live in a forest. He was extremely fond of children and used to handcraft beautiful toys which he distributed among them. It is believed that he died while rescuing children from a burning house. However, a fairy resurrected him and offered him an eternal life so that he could keep bringing wonderful gifts to children. This modern version is the reason that this figure finds a place in Christmas celebrations.
Olentzero is commonly portrayed as a jolly and fat 'Basque' peasant, wearing a Basque beret, traditional abarketa shoes and smoking a pipe.
On Christmas Eve, people carry the effigies of Olentzero and sing Christmas carols while gathering food and sweets. In some places in Spain, Olentzero effigies are also burned as per the traditions.