Society for the Anthropology of Religion
Volunteered - Oral Presentation Session
Christmas is changing in the Basque Country: today a pre-Christian figure from Basque mythology is monopolizing the public celebrations of the festival. The transformation of the ancient elemental figure, Olentzero, who was incorporated into the Christianization of the Basque as the announcer of the end of paganism, illustrates the re-emergence of ancient mythology in the Basque country – one which, however, is being modified to contemporary secular socio-cultural partialities.
The details about the nature of Olentzero’s pre-Christian character is still under debate. Yet, within the Christianized Basque culture, Olentzero heralds the birth of the Christ Child. Inspired by the widely-known Christmas song “Olentzero joan zaigu” (Olentzero has gone), independent youth groups in the Valley of Bidasoa started to make an anthropomorphic mannequin of Olentzero and carried him door-to-door when caroling. In the last few decades, however, this public celebration has converted Olentzero into a live-man spectacle bearing Christmas gifts all over the Basque country. Communicating with WhatsApp, his spectacular arrivals on Christmas Eve are televised from the capitals of every province.
In my paper, I will describe the triple transformation of Olentzero from mythological element to Christian messenger and, presently, into the secularized “Basque Santa Claus”. I will also introduce a new fictional female character, Mari Domingin, who has become an intrinsic part of Olentzero’s gift-giving persona, and finally, I will conclude by analyzing the socio-cultural phenomenon promoting Olentzero as the uniquely Basque gift-giving Christmas personage that competes with celebrations of the Christian Three Wise Men / Magi.