Saturday, January 03, 2009

Basque Style Christmas Celebration

This article comes to us thanks to The Idaho Press Tribune:

Holiday in Basque Country

Patricia Gorla

Celebrations focus more on family, food than presents

BOISE — To some, he's a coal miner. To other's, he's a charred log. But to all Basque children, the mythical Olentzero marks the holiday season with messages of health and cheer.

Izaskun Kortazar grew up in Sondika, Bizkaia, in the heart of Basque Country. She teaches a weekly Basque language class at the Boise Basque Museum, Spanish at Boise State University and coordinates all Basque teachers in the United States for the North American Basque Organization.

But Kortazar still recalls children's Christmas traditions such as placing shoes at the door, waiting for Olentzero to come and fill them with presents and candy.

Situated in northern Spain, Sondika's four-thousand-member community celebrates a more spread-out holiday season, starting on Christmas Eve and ending with Three Kings Day on Jan. 6.

Olentzero is usually depicted as an old, kind coal miner who spends his free time making toys for children, Kortazar said.

"But everywhere is different," she added. Some traditions call for a large bonfire on Christmas Eve. Town members would take the charred, remaining logs and make their pets jump over the wood. Then the logs would be burned in each house's fireplace. This ensured both the family's and animals' continual health throughout the coming year.

The symbolism also represents Olentzero, she said.

A Christmas Eve mass is held at night and a Christmas Day mass is held the next morning.

The typical Basque Christmas dinner is held late at night and usually consists of many courses.

"It's a huge, huge dinner," said Kortazar. "We spend 10 minutes with presents and three hours eating."

Dishes include "tripecallos," tripe in a red pepper sauce, ham similar to prosciutto, lamb and many different kinds of fish. Another popular feature is "txipirones en su tinta" — squid cooked in an onion sauce with its own ink. In some areas the entire family collaborates to make the seafood dish.

But Christmas meals wouldn't be complete without the plethora of desserts — turron, a type of honey-and-almond nougat that can be chocolate, soft or hard, walnut pudding, and "polvoron," various cakes and cookies.

The focus of Christmas in Idaho is different from Sondika's, Kortazar noted. Basque celebrations revolve more around family and food, she said. "It's much more about presents here."

New Year's Eve is much the same as Christmas. For Christmas, families gather for another feast. At midnight, people eat 12 grapes for every strike of the hour. Grapes in Sondika are usually not seedless, making the tradition a difficult feat.

There are too many seeds at once, Kortazar said. "I can't do it."

At the same time, children carry water from the town's fountains and bring it to people's houses across towns. Community members accept the water from the children and drink it, symbolizing a new year of health and wellness.

And even bigger than Christmas or New Year's in Basque Country is Three Kings Day. According to biblical account, the three magi Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar saw a bright star in the sky the night Jesus Christ was born. They followed the star until they reached Bethlehem and gave the newborn gold, frankincense and myrrh. Their journey took 12 days, which is why Three Kings Day falls on the twelfth day after Christmas.

Small gifts are often exchanged during this time. In Sondika, the local airport often gives plane rides to the children who receive their presents upon landing. Gifts are also distributed at local churches, following mass.

But whether a gift-making coal miner, a charred lump of wood or a free plane ride — the spirit of community and goodwill remains constant.

Basque phrases

"Eguberri on" = Merry Christmas

"Urte Berri on" = Happy New Year

"Kaixo" = Hello

"Ongui-etorri" = Welcome

Language: Euskara

Country: Euzkadi

People: Euskaldunak

Did you know?

• Linguists cannot connect Euskara to any known language.

• Some historians believe the Basques to be Europe's most ancient inhabitants, having lived in Basque country since the beginnings of recorded time.

• Boise has the highest concentration of Basques in the United States and is home to the only full-immersion Basque preschool outside of Basque Country.

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