Christmas Eve in the Basque Country Long Ago

The sun exercises a miraculous influence during the winter solstice right up to Christmas (‘Eguberri’ – the Basque word for Christmas). Christmas Eve in particular is shrouded in sorcery.

After they have eaten (the meal is usually cooked in a fire made with a log having supernatural and beneficial powers) and attended Midnight Mass the inhabitants of every house go to bed.

The house is at peace. The whole village is at peace.

However, while they are sleeping a mysterious person called Olentzaro comes down the chimney. This Olentzaro, though no one has seen him, is described as looking like a glutton of a man, grotesque in appearance. His faced is dirty as if with charcoal; he is probably a charcoal burner. His eyes are bloodshot and—some even say—he has as many of them as there are days in a year. He wears a black beret on his head and in his hand he has a jagged sickle.

He makes his appearance and immediately settles down in exactly the same way as the members of the family, warming himself at the fire of the great log expressly lit for this night. The flames are very lively and he feels very pleased indeed. And thus the hours pass until the night and the inactivity of the mortals begin to draw to a close. So it is that without further ado he gets up and departs by the way he had arrived. And thank goodness that the fire had not burnt out and that it had been hot enough! Because otherwise Olentzaro would have got himself into a rage with the inhabitants of the house and would have cut them all to shreds with his sickle...

From the book, ‘Cuentos de la Mitología Vasca’ (‘Tales from Basque Mythology’) by Mercedes Aguirre and Alicia Esteban, Madrid, Ediciones de la Torre, 2006.

(Translation: Barry Tobin, November 2007)

La Nochebuena en el País Vasco Hace Mucho Tiempo

A Box of Christmas Readings