Camino de SantiagoCamino Francés | Camino Downunder

Meeting Olentzero if you’re lucky on the Camino Francés in December…

Posted by on Dec 24, 2014 in Blog, the Camino Francés | No Comments
Olentzero bringing gifts for children on Christmas Eve - note the typical Basque house in the background

Olentzero bringing gifts for children on Christmas Eve

We know that winter pilgrimage on the Camino Francés dramatically drops the number of pilgrim-walkers for obvious reasons.

However, having an encounter and meeting Olentzero in the French and Spanish Basque areas of the pilgrimage routes can be a real highlight and joy.

Note the first image on the right: Olentzero has all the colourfully wrapped gifts at his feet.  A typical Basque house is pictured in the background on the left.  This Basque architecture is seen on both the French and Spanish sides of the border.  Here, he is portrayed as child friendly and generous to children deserving rewards.

Olentzero is a male and he makes his appearance each year in December – he is in fact the culturally authentic version of Santa Claus/le père Noël/Papá Noel for the Basque locals both in France and Spain.

In Pamplona there are processions and celebrations in his honour…

Olentzero in Pamplona in December

Olentzero in Pamplona in December

What are Olentzero‘s origins and genesis? Like all cultural traditions there are a number of conflicting interpretations and like all cultural traditions they continue to evolve and change slowly over time.

There are many variations to the Olentzero traditions and stories connected to him, sometimes vary from village to village. The first written account of Olentzero is from Lope de Isasti in the 17th century: A la noche de Navidad (llamamos) onenzaro, la sazón de los buenos (“To Christmas eve (we call) onenzaro, the season of the good ones”.

One common version has Olentzero being one of the jentillak, a mythological race of Basque giants living in the Pyrenees. Legend has it that they observed a glowing cloud in the sky one day. None of them could look at this bright cloud except for a very old, nearly blind man. When asked to examine it, he confirmed their fears and told them that it was a sign that Jesus will be born soon. According to some stories, the old man asked the giants to throw him off a cliff to avoid having to live through Christianisation. Having obliged him, the giants tripped on the way down and died themselves except Olentzero.

Other versions have the jentillak simply leaving, with only Olentzero remaining behind to embrace Christianity.

Parts of Olentzero legend are reminiscent of a prehistoric cult rituals surrounding the winter solstice, such as the involvement of ritual “last meals” and sacrifices of rebirth.

Other versions of the Olentzeroren kondaira, or “history of Olentzero”, tell that as a new born he was abandoned in the woods and was found by a fairy who gave him the name Olentzero, bestowed gifts of strength and kindness on him and handed him to an older childless couple living alone in the woods. He turned into a strong man and charcoal burner who was also good with his hands, carving wooden toys that he would carry in a big charcoal bag to give to the children of the village. It is said that he died one day saving children from a burning house and that when he died, the fairy who had found him granted him eternal life to continue to bring joy to children and people. Source: Wikipedia

A Spanish Olentzero with his Basque hat and pipe and staff; benign and child-friendly.

A Spanish Olentzero with his Basque beret and pipe and staff; benign and child-friendly.

The French version

If you arrive at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in December as your starting point for the Camino de Santiago and your arrival at Saint-Jean coincides with a weekend; do not be surprised if you meet Olentzero: local French children will be there too, both nervously and excitedly awaiting his appearance as he comes down the mountain with gifts…

Such is the richness, depth and breadth of walking the Camino de Santiago at any time of the year. However, deep knowledge and preparation will make sure that you will be at the right place and at the right time, in order to enjoy your pilgrimage to the maximum.

The 2015 Camino Downunder’s classes in Australia and New Zealand start next month.

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