Olentzero: Northern Spain’s Christmas legend

Olentzero parade in Lesaka on December 24 CREDIT: Alfonso Bermejo

Olentzero is a popular character in Northern Spain who, according to Christmas traditions, visits towns and villages late at night on December 24 to leave presents for the children.

Legend has it that Olentzero was abandoned as a new born in the woods, where he was rescued by a fairy who bestowed on him the gifts of strength and kindness. With the fairy’s help, he turned into a strong man who lived in the mountains and worked as a charcoal burner. He was a kind man, who carved wooden toys for the village children, which he would take down to them in a coal sack. It is believed that he died as he was saving children from a burning house. But, upon seeing this, the fairy granted him eternal life so he could continue bringing joy.

Darker versions of the tradition depict Olentzero as a drunkard who lives hidden away in the forest and who only comes out during Christmas to leave presents. In many villages, parents would warn their children that Olentzero would climb down the chimney and cut their throats with a sickle if they didn’t go to bed.

In northern towns in Navarra and the Basque Country, people dress up as Olentzero and make intricate floats that participate in festive parades on November 24.

Alfonos Bermejo, author of Tradiciones y Fiestas, covers the Olentzero Parade in the town of Lesaka in Navarra. 

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Written by

Camila O'Reilly


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