We are in the picturesque Navarre village called Lesaka for an outside the box Christmas experience.
A happy traveller’s account of Christmas with Northern Spain Travel
Early in the day Stephanie came to pick us up at the apartment. She not only came to pick us up – she brought surprise packages of Basque clothing for us to wear. A man’s outfit of blue, wide fitting pants (which René didn’t wear in the end), a black smock, black beret, cream coloured heavy wool socks, and black shoes that lace all the way up the calf. For me a full skirt (elastic waist band luckily), matching blouse, a dark burgundy wool shawl, a white head scarf to tie turban style, and the same style of socks and shoes as René’s.
All attired, we drove out to Lesaka, a village deep in the mountains where the annual Olentzero Competition was being held. Olentzero is the Basque equivalent of Santa Claus. He is a character in Basque Christmas tradition who comes to town late at night on the 24th of December (in most places) to drop off presents for children. He is an overweight, somewhat drunk, jolly man and representations of him appear in many places and in many forms – on posters or in three dimensional models.
In Lesaka groups of float builders gather to create their own version of Olentzero, typically doing some mundane activity such as feeding his chickens, making hay, enjoying a pintxo and so on. These models are placed on a platform which is then carried on the shoulders of the group that created it. One by one the groups come before the judges (who are high and lifted up in the bandstand of the town square) where they stand, sing the traditional Olentzero songs, and have their float scrutinized for creativity, originality, construction etc. The singing and general presentation are also judged. Groups are formed by very young children, adolescents, adults. The judging also takes into account the ages of the contestants and their experience, as well as their ability. Inhabitants of the village and visitors from all over the area flock into the main square, most of them wearing traditional costumes. Most of the women had outfits pretty much like ours but the men, in addition to the standard pants and smock wore shaggy sheepskins on their backs. Everyone was in jolly mood as we gathered close to the open area where the floats were displayed one by one.
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Everyone was in jolly mood in the local bar too!! Here we were squeezed tight alongside others enjoying beers or wine or simple grape juice with pintxos of various types. We munched on delicious local tiny, spicy sausage, with bread. A group of musicians wandered in and played lively Basque music for a while. A great atmosphere of jollity and friendship.
Once all floats had been presented they were “parked” around the square so we could wander around and take a closer look at them. Winners would not be announced until late afternoon but we were hungry so, instead of waiting, we went to a nearby village to have a hearty lunch in an ancient restaurant – delicious food and equally delicious local cider.
Stephanie had “picked up” some local friends as we wandered through Lesaka and they joined us for lunch – one of them was a part time professional singer and he sang to us once the restaurant had emptied out – the wait staff and we egged him on to sing more and more – it was a beautiful.
“A delightful, fun, colourful, and interesting outing.”
What is an Olentzero?
Olentzero (Pronounced in Basque as [olents̻eɾo]) is a character in Basque Christmas tradition and can be considered the Basque version of Saint Nicolas or Santa Claus. Olentzero represents a charcoal burner who lives in the mountains and makes charcoal. According to Basque tradition, this jolly mountain man, the Olentzero comes to town late at night on the 24th of December to drop off presents to the good children and chunks of coal for the ‘bad’ children. In some villages, Olentzero arrives later, for example in Ochagavía – Otsagabia on the 27th and in Ermua on the 31st.
In Lesaka in particular, in the place of Ikatzulo where there was an aize ola (wind ironworks) the aize-waves were chimneys where the charcoal burners worked and which were placed on the hillsides to improve combustion and increase the temperature of the ironworks.
What is the Christmas Tradition Olentzero?
According to many scholars and theories or hypotheses, the origin of the Olentzero tradition was found in the Villa de Lesaka and from there it spread to numerous towns in Navarra and the Basque Country, although there is no specific date to determine when the tradition began. There is no specific date to recognize the origin of the Lesaka Olentzero, but it should be noted that in 1927 a document describes a straw stuffed puppet that is carried in a procession giving blessings and at the end is burned in the square. Until last year, the groups of children that make their Olentzero float would burn these precious works of art.
In 2019, the town hall prohibited this nasty tradition and instead were put on exhibition in the square. As for the famous Lesaka Olentzeros and float and singing contest, it was officially organized for the first time in 1950, although it had already been held unofficially long before.
How does the Olentzero Contest work?
Lesaka’s Olentzero is held annually from December 24 to 25, on Christmas Eve. The celebration is divided into two parts, in the morning the “Olentzero and Births Contest”, and in the afternoon the parade with the winner of the contest. During the Contest, the young people who carry the image of Olentzero must sing two songs (one compulsory “Olentzero Buru Haundia” and another free) while keeping the character in tow. The groups must be composed of at least 6 people and they must wear the typical clothes.
To get the prize, Olentzero himself, the clothes and the free song are valued. Previously, the Birth Contest is held with the same dynamics, the groups present the births and sing two songs. In the afternoon, the Olentzero of the winning group goes out in a kalejira or parade through the streets of Lesaka accompanied by the Band of Music.
Signing off wishing you health, happiness and the best for 2021, Stephanie Mutsaerts, founder of NST