Thursday, December 5, 2013

Zorionak eta Urte Berri On: Holidays in Basque Country

The gorgeous warm weather landscape of the Basque country
During the year in which I studied abroad in Germany, I had the opportunity to spend three weeks over the holidays in the Basque Country of Spain. For those of you who have never heard of the Basques, they are an ethnic group inhabiting mostly north central Spain, but also parts of southwestern France. They are also considered to be one of the oldest societies in Europe, and this is something that the Basque people take a lot of pride in. 

Their language, Euskara (referred to as Basque in English), is ancient and unrelated to any present day Indo-European language. The ancestors of modern Basques are estimated to have been living on the European continent, specifically on the Iberian Peninsula for over 7,000 years, predating the arrival of agriculture to that area. While the Basque country is a part of Spain, it maintains it's unique heritage, culture and traditions.

Basque Country in Spain

Getting back to the story of my holiday adventures in Euskadi, I flew from Frankurt to Bilbao after classes finished up and in the process my luggage went missing. I arrived at the Bilbao airport understanding only a little Spanish, no Euskara, having no luggage, and possessing only the name of the bus that I was supposed to get on to arrive in a city called Logroño, where a friend of my aunt’s from 10 years ago was supposed to pick me up. Whew! For some reason, I don't remember being too bothered by all of this. I attempted to inform some airport staff about the lost luggage, which turned out to be a frustrating conversation for both of us! In the end, I handed over the phone number of the friend (who was currently at work and not answering), and tried to explain that they should just call her if they find my luggage. Crossing my fingers that the bag would somehow find it's way to me, I got on what I hoped was the right bus and started off!
View of Bilbao, Spain
I arrived in Logroño safely, and luckily the woman was waiting to meet me and had even heard from the airport. The bad news was that my luggage wouldn't arrive for a day or two. But, when we finally arrived at our final destination, which was the medieval town of Elvillar or Bilar in Basque, my host told me that the next day I would be accompanying her to the school where she taught, and that no worries, I didn't need my clothes because she had an outfit for me to wear. She laughed when she said this, which made me more than a little nervous...

Final destination: Elvillar/Bilar
This brings me to the subject of the holidays. The "outfit" that she had for me to wear was a traditional Basque outfit including a long skirt, headscarf, and apron. The kids at her school thought it was pretty funny to see me wearing it, but I wasn't alone.

For men the outfit consists of black shirts and berets and everyone in the school that day was wearing these traditional clothes. The project du jour was making and eating traditional holiday foods and creating an effigy of Olentzero, the Basque Santa. The culmination of the day was parading through town carrying the Olentzero and stopping to sing carols for the many family and friends who had come to watch. One of the delicious treats eaten while out caroling was a kind of hot, chocolate soup. This thick sweet soup was perfect for dipping bread or cookies into, and even better for warming up in the chilly air!

The story of the Basque Santa, Olentzero, has evolved over the years from a tale of the last bloodthirsty survivor of a race of ancient giants, to one that is more suitable for modern children at Christmas:
 "A Christmas character from Spain’s Basque Country, Olentzero is sometimes said to be the last member of the “jentillak”, a mythological race of Basque giants that inhabited the Pyrenees before the coming of Christ. Other versions of the legend have him abandoned in a forest as a babe, found by a fairy who left him in the care of an older childless couple. After perishing in a fire to save some children, the fairy came to his rescue again and granted him eternal life. Since then he has hung out in Euskal Herria (the traditionally Basque homelands, including present day Basque Country, and Navarre) spreading Christmas joy among children and adults alike. Following the Franco dictatorship during which all aspects of Euskadi culture were strictly oppressed, the Olentzero traditions were revived as an alternative to the Spanish tradition of the Three Wisemen....In Euskal Herria, we have an old saying: Everything that has a name exists, if we believe it exists. So it is with Olentzero, giant, former coalminer turned toymaker. While some may scoff and roll their eyes, he’s been around for centuries, making sure every Basque child gets a gift at Christmas. Every December 24th he hikes down the Pyrenees mountains to the villages below them to deliver wooden toys he makes himself. "
This excerpt is from  Midwesterner Abroad. Read more about Olentzero from Chris, the author at Midwesterner Abroad, here.

Olentzero in Watercolor
During this season, just as in many places around the world, Christmas trees decorate many homes and streets in the Basque country. The 24th, Christmas Eve, is considered Olentzero's day, and there is often a parade through the streets that evening, complete with music and dancing.

Christmas is a time for family, and Basques usually get together for Christmas Eve dinner as well as Christmas Day, and there is a variety of meals that might be eaten to celebrate. Traditional Basque cuisine is very distinctive, heavily featuring sea food and meats. The holiday meal that I experienced consisted of several courses, beginning with a seafood soup and appetizers and finishing with the pièce de résistance: a roast baby pig, as you can see in the below image. To be honest, I was a little squeamish when it came to eating it, straight out of the oven and complete with a face, but I did try it!

Roast pig: the least graphic image that I could find of it. 
Roast pig, or ham in general, made up the majority of my diet while I was visiting the Basque country. In fact, Spain in general is known for it's ham, and in many tapas bars you'll see several hanging from the ceiling.

Ham in a tapas bar
On the subject of tapas, the Basque country has it's own form of tapas called pintxos. These were the snacks that the kids were making in the school I visited, and while once again heavily featuring meat and seafood, they were delicious.

...and more pintxos... many pintxos! 
I'll be honest, at least one of these photos may in fact be of tapas, but despite the fact that pintxos are generally said to be tastier, there are many similarities! Here's the breakdown according to one author

          "In the Basque Country, you are served 'pintxos'. It is never written 'pinchos' and they are never called 'tapas'. This is the case regardless of whether it is served 'pinchado' (pierced) to a piece of bread with a cocktail stick or not. Even if you're served a plate of risotto, it's still a pintxo. You will always pay for your pintxo. In Salamanca, particularly on Calle Van Dyck, you are served pinchos. They are almost always a piece of meat served on a piece of bread. Though not actually 'pinchado' with a stick, this is still close to the original idea of what a 'pincho' is. However, here they are free.  In Granada and Leon (and in some other nearby cities) as well as in some bars in Madrid, a small portion, whether served on bread or not, is a tapa. It is free.  In Seville and other parts of Andalusia, all small portions are called 'tapas'. They are not free. In many cities in Spain,
particularly Madrid, a large portion of, say, calamares, will be called a 'ración', with a half-size portion called a 'media ración' and a quarter-size portion a 'tapa'. In most parts of Spain, when trying to informally say 'a bit of', for example "Can I have a bit of tortilla please?" you will ask for a 'pincho' - so 'un pincho de tortilla'."

(Basque cuisine has undergone some changes in recent years, however, from heavier and more rustic fare to much lighter dishes. If you're interested in learning more, you can read about that here.)

New Year's is also a big deal in the Basque country and generally included as a part of the Christmas festivities. In preparation for the big night we all got dressed up and started it off by heading down to the town square where everyone was congregating in the bars for a glass of wine or two. Then, we left for another family dinner complete with multiple courses. Afterwards and close to midnight, we counted down the seconds by eating one grape for each passing second: twelve grapes total. This is a tradition found not just in the Basque country, but throughout Spain. 

Ten New Year's grapes left!

After the clock has officially struck midnight and all of the grapes are eaten, it's time to go out! Generally celebrations last until well into the morning and New Year's day is spent having another family meal around lunchtime and sleeping off the hangover from the night before!

If you ever get a chance to visit, the holidays in the Basque country are quite the experience! Be sure to check out the holidays in Japan, presented by Nate, and keep an eye out for Holly's upcoming post on Brazil! In conclusion, I'll wish you "Zorionak eta urte berri on" (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year), and leave you with this Basque Christmas song:
Olentzero joan zaigu
mendira lanera,
ikatz egitera.
Aditu duenean
Jesus jaio dela
lasterka etorri da
berri ematera.
Horra horra
gure Olentzero
pipa hortzetan dula
eserita dago.
Kapoiak ere ba'itu
bihar meriendatzeko
botila ardoakin.
Olentzero gurea
ezin dugu ase
osorik jan dizkigu
hamar txerri gazte.
Saiheski ta solomo
horrenbeste heste
Jesus jaio delako
erruki zaitezte.
Olentzerok dakarzki
atsegin ta poza
jakin baitu mendian
Jesusen jaiotza.
Egun argi honetan
alaitu bihotza
kanpo eta barruan
kendu azkar hotza.
Olentzero has gone
to the mountains to work
with the intention
of making charcoal.
When he heard
that Jesus has been born
he came running
to bring news
There is, there is
our Olentzero
with the pipe between his teeth
he sits.
He also has capons
with little eggs,
to celebrate tomorrow
with a bottle of wine.
Our Olentzero
we can't sate him
he has eaten whole
ten piglets.
Ribs and pork loin
so many intestines
because Jesus is born
have mercy.
Olentzero brings
happiness and joy
because he has heard on the mountain
of Jesus' birth.
On this bright day
heart, rejoice
outside and inside
quickly lose the chill.

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