Like many Basque traditions and stories, we do not know the exact origins and the same applies to this wintery character: Olentzero, a unique Basque Christmas personality usually compared to Santa Claus.
Today we know the Olentzero as the mythic winter figure, but he takes his name from an older custom. The word "olentzero" is a combination of the words olesen + aroa. Aroa means "time" or "season," and "olesen" is an old Basque word that is preserved only in old folk-songs.
Over the centuries the story of Olentzero has been adapted. The first written account of Olentzero is from Lope de Isasi back in the 16th century. In his version it tells of a time thousands of years ago when there was a tribe of giants in Basque mythology and Olentzero was one of them.
They lived in the forests of the Pyrenees in the Kingdom, in the area of the village of Lesaka.
One day the people of this tribe discovered a glowing cloud in the sky. They feared that this light was the divine sign of the arrival of the imminent birth of Jesus. None of them could look at this bright cloud except for a very old, nearly blind man. They held him up to take a look. He turned pale and confirmed their wildest fear: "Yes, this is the sign, Jesus will be born soon". They feared that vast changes would come with the arrival of Jesus and the demise of their way of life. After foreseeing this news, the old man thought the only solution would be to terminate his life, and so he asked his giant friends to throw him off the highest cliff. They complied. But on the way back down the mountain, the group of giants tripped head over heels and fell to their death, all, except one.
The only survivor Olentzero hiked to the villages in the valley, angry for what had happened, he killed the people who ate too much on the day before the arrival of Christ, i.e. on the 24th of December. He himself was not the fasting type, he was a thick glutton who could eat huge quantities of meat which he washed down with strong liquor.
Now of course this wasn't a feel-good story for the holidays, so over the last century this legend was adapted for young children. The church wanted to shift pagan rites to be associated with Christian traditions and turn it into a Christian feast with a Christian-like hero. Also Basque nationalism wanted an alternative to the Spanish tradition of the Three Wise Kings and the French and North European Pere Noel or Santa Claus.
The new, cleansed, Christianized version of the story is of Olentzero as a human, a humble man with a heart filled with love. As a new born he was left alone in the woods where a fairy with long blond hair found him, adopted him, gave him the name Olentzero and raised him. He turned into a strong man and worked as a charcoal maker.
He was hard-working and gifted with his hands. He carved wooden animals, toys and dolls. When he had a big charcoal bag full of toys he hiked to the village in the valley and distributed the wooden figures amongst the children to make them happy.
Children loved him and Olentzero would always come back whenever he had finished another bag of toys, where they awaited him. One day as he came down to the village he found a house in flames. He dashed to the house finding crying children behind the closed windows and ran into the house and freed them by lowering them from an upstairs window. With everyone safe he went downstairs when the house collapsed under the fire, burying him. Villagers gathered around the burning ruins and they suddenly saw a white flash leaving the flames and heading towards the sky. The fairy that had found him in the woods had come to be with him. She said, "Olentzero you have such a good heart, you’ve given your life for others. You should not die. You shall live forever, making toys for all the children in this village and in the whole Basque Country." And that is now how the story is told so that on the 24th of December, Olentzero makes his annual appearance.
His image is conjured up by villagers, sometimes made of paper mache, sometimes even a carved figure. His image changes from place to place, but he is characteristically dressed in the traditional "baserri" or farmer's attire with dark pants tucked into socks below the knees; leather, rope tied shoes; an overshirt sometimes with a coat of natural wool; a black beret, staff and a smoking pipe. He is paraded through the streets, choral groups accompanying him, dressed in similar costume and bundled up for protection from the chilling wintry winds, or represented as a figurine they put up in different towns.
Whether this figure is called "Papa Noel," "Santa Claus," or "Olentzero," the motif is the same and now you know the story of the Basque Santa Claus you can also pair your Basque knowledge by wishing a Merry Christmas in Basque: ¨Gabonak¨, ¨Natibitate¨ and the most popular term ”Eguberri" which means ¨new-day.¨
-Information taken from 'The Basque HIstory of the World' by Mark Kurlansky and 'Dictionnaire Illustré de Mythologie Basque' by Barandiaran, J and Sarrigurenweb.