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Olentzero, the Christmas Jentilak

Olentzero is synonymous with Christmas to the Basque people. He is one of the last surviving relics of pre-Christian pagan beliefs. There are numerous differing legends and practices about Olentzero; almost every Basque village had its own variation. In many ways he is similar to other European counties’ “Father Christmas,” but in just as many ways he is a completely unique character to Basque folklore.

Originally he was a giant, or jentilak, who lived in the mountains. He was the last surviving member of a tribe of giants who either died with the birth of Christ, or simply left to avoid being Christianized. Sometimes called Olentzero of the red eyes, he would cut the throat of children who broke the fast. In other variations, he would kill anyone who ate too much on Christmas Eve, which was traditionally a day of fasting. He is often portrayed as being drunk, slouched in a chair with an empty bottle in his hand. He is usually dressed like a peasant and is always very rustic.

In some villages, a figurine of Olentzero holding a sickle is hung over the fireplace, which is supposed to bring good luck. Olentzero is so closely associated with Christmas that the Basque term “Olentzeroren kondaira” can be translated both as “History of Olentzero” and “History of Christmas.”

Though many versions include a violent personality, not all of the stories about Olentzero are frightening. In one of the more common Basque fairytales about him told today, he is a simple carpenter who is made immortal by a fairy so that he can always make toys to deliver to Basque children on Christmas.

Olentzero sits under a Christmas tree.
Mari Domingi and a galtzagorri can be seen behind him. 
Olentzero is increasingly becoming more like Santa Claus, as can be seen in the addition of him coming down a chimney. He is sometimes shown as having a soot-covered face as a result. He is more often being portrayed as an older white-haired man, whereas he traditionally was a bit younger and had black hair and beard, or even no beard at all.

Santa has elves, Olentzero has the galtzagorris. They are magical beings the size of a pin cushion that work nonstop at a fast speed. They can complete any task in one night. They will appear in Christmas parades in the entourage of Olentzero. It is implied that they assist Olentzero in making the toys for Christmas.

In recent years, Olentzero has been accompanied by Mari Domingi, a female farmer who frequently appeared in Olentzero stories but usually didn’t play a specific role in them. Today, she is sort of like a Mrs. Claus. Her name translates as “marriage,” and she is frequently portrayed as wearing a traditional Basque wedding dress. Perhaps someday there will be little Olentzeros?