How many of us know that another Santa Claus exists? The Olentzero is a traditional, Basque gift-giver. Read on for more information about this interesting Christmas legend!


Christmas is a wonderful time filled with peace, harmony and love. It is a time when families come together and spend time with each other. Christmas is synonymous with Christmas trees, snow figures, decorations and of course Santa Claus. We know of the ever popular Saint Nicholas and his deeds. Another similar person that we can name is Olentzero, who is famous for dropping off presents inconspicuously. He is a part of the Basque Christmas customs. It is said that he comes into town late at night on Christmas Eve and drops gifts for children while they are asleep. It is also believed that in some places, he comes around December 27 while in some others, on New Year's Eve. He is known by many different names like Onenzaro, Onentzaro, Olentzaro, Ononzaro and so on. The word 'Olentzero' comprises of two words which means "time of the good ones". Christmas, according to Basque traditions, is also known as 'xubilaro' or 'subilaro'.

Another Santa Claus

The Legend
There are many different variations to the legend of Olentzero. The first source of this legend dates back to the 17th century and is called 'A la Noche de Navidad (llamamos) onenzaro, la sazon de los buenos' ("To Christmas Eve (we call) onenzaro, the season of the good ones"). It is believed that Olentzero was from a particular race called the 'Jentillak', who were believed to be mythological. Legend has it that once there was a bright cloud in the sky which was only sensed by a blind old man. When asked about the cloud, the blind man stated in a foreboding tone that Jesus Christ was about to be born. According to traditional folklore, the old man wished to be thrown off a cliff, so that he did not have be a part of the new religion (Christianity), which he neither believed nor understood. A bunch of giants agreed to the old man's bidding. However, after having thrown the old man off the cliff, all the giants also tripped and fell. The only giant who survived out of the group of giants was known as Olentzero.

There are other versions to this legend, with the jentillak choosing to leave Olentzero behind because he chose to embrace Christianity. The legend is associated with certain aspects of conventional customs such as 'sacrifices' and 'last meals'.

It is believed that Olentzero was abandoned in the woods as a baby and was found by a fairy who christened him. The fairy then bequeathed him with special attributes of strength and kindness and handed him to an old, childless couple in the woods. He grew into a strong man and worked as a charcoal burner. It is believed that he was artistic and carved toys for the children of the village. Legend states that Olentzero sacrificed his own life and saved countless children from a burning house. Later, the same fairy stumbled upon him and granted him immortality along with bringing happiness and prosperity to the children and the dwellers of the village.

Olentzero is portrayed as a lovable figure and is believed to be overweight. As peasants usually wore berets, this Christmas legend is also seen wearing a Basque beret with 'abarketa' shoes, and is depicted smoking a pipe. At times, his face is marked with charcoal and reminds us of the story of his origins and his profession as a charcoal burner.

Olentzero Song
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 loose the chill.

Olentzero is a traditional Basque Christmas gift-giver and has been a part of Christmas festivities since time immemorial. Although country specific gift-givers are waning in obscurity, Olentzero is still awaited by children every year.