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Traditions in the Basque Country

The comparison with the Nordic Santa Claus was inevitable.

Christmas Traditions: Olentzero

Olentzero is a character from the Basque Christmas tradition. He is a mythological collier that brings Christmas gifts to homes in the Basque Country, on both sides of the Pyrenees. Olentzero is represented as a thick man, unkempt, stained with coal. His main characteristic is that he lives isolated from the society dedicated to making charcoal in the forest, enjoying eating and drinking well and every winter he goes down from the mountains to the villages.

The most widespread hypothesis is that the origin of Olentzero predates the Christianization of Navarre and that the character of Olentzero must be located within the celebrations of the winter solstice.

There is evidence of the existence in the Basque territory of the commemoration of the winter solstice and the rebirth of nature and the sun. In this line, the ragged, neglected and old look of the character would symbolize the past time and it’s burning, the usual way in which the parade ended on Christmas Eve, represents the destruction of all relationship with the “old time” and the reception of a new time: it means leaving the way free to the year that arrives.

Christianity adopted the local customs before their new beliefs. The Olentzero character would have become the announcer of the news of the birth of Jesus. The character is endowed with Christian and homelike meaning in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic Church. The comparison with the Nordic Santa Claus was inevitable.

In the twentieth century, the figure of Olentzero incorporated elements of the traditions of Santa Claus, the Magi and the Baby Jesus becoming a character that on Christmas day brings gifts to children.

Ituren and Zubieta’s Carnival

The last week of January, Ituren, and Zubieta, two neighboring towns of the Malerreka region, south of the Bidasoa (Navarre), anticipate the official dates and celebrate their unique carnival: the famous carnivals of Ituren and Zubieta. The central act consists of separate parades of the Joaldunak, through the streets of Ituren on Monday, and by Zubieta on Tuesday.

The origin of this festivities is unknown, as well as its purpose, but it is firmly believed that it is a tradition linked to agriculture and livestock and also to mysticism, since it is believed that the “Joaldunak” besides protecting their livestock keeping away the wild beasts, they chased away evil spirits, thus favoring good harvests.

The troupe of Joaldunak (whose translation would be “those who carry cowbells”), in which the neighbors of both villages participate, are the main characters of this festival. They go through the streets dressed in abarcas, petticoats, sheep’s pelisse on the waist and shoulders, colored scarves around their necks, conical caps with ribbons, and hyssop with horsehair in their right hand.

On Monday the Joaldunak of Zubieta depart to Ituren, distant about 3 km. After crossing the bridge of Zubiburu, they meet with Ituren’s Joaldunak and at this point begins the joint parade of about forty or fifty joaldunak (between eighty and a hundred cowbells) that ends in the village’s square. Here they will eat together and celebrate the brotherhood of the villages. The next day, Tuesday, are those of Ituren who go to visit those of Zubieta.

A rhythmic clatter is formed with the large cowbells that the Joaldunak carry attached to their kidneys and that beat in unison with the rhythmic movement of their hips. The joaldunak manage to form a sound current wrapped in history and superstitions.

The characteristic rhythm of this parade, which hypnotizes the assistant, is marked by one of the Joaldun with a horn, which sounds intermittently, also with the help of shouts to set the pace. It is distinguished from the other Joaldunak since the horn he uses hangs from his chest.

Easter season

During the Easter season, the Holly Week was traditionally celebrated in the Basque Country, where different processions representing scenes from the Passion of Christ and other scenes from the Bible took place. However, today these processions have mostly been lost and are only celebrated in a few villages in the territory. For the vast majority of the population, Easter is just a period of vacation they use to rest or do a small trip, but it no longer has any religious connotation.

Short bio of the volunteer:

My name is Jone, I am 28 years old and I am from a city of 200,000 inhabitants, called San Sebastián, in the Basque Country, in the north of Spain. Since 2012 I have lived in France, currently in the city of Bayonne, in the French Basque area. I studied Humanities and translation, and before starting my EVS I used to work as a Basque language teacher.


Erasmus+ is a programme of the European Commission embracing the fields of education, training, youth, and sports during the period 2014-2020. One of the major aspects is the cooperation between the different fields where the programme acts, hence contributing to a diverse and rich Europe.

Amongst the several goals of the programme, the following are prioritised: the objectives of the Europe 2020 Strategy, including the headline education target; the aims of the strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training (ET 2020), including the corresponding benchmarks; the sustainable development of Partner Countries in the field of higher education; the overall goals of the renewed framework for European cooperation in the youth field (2010-2018); the objective of developing the European dimension in sport, in particular grassroots sport, in line with the EU work plan for sport and the promotion of European values in accordance with Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union.

In order to achieve these goals, the Erasmus+ has several action policies. The Key Action 1 (KA1) is directed towards the mobility of people; Key Action 2 (KA2) for the cooperation for innovation and the interchange of good experiences; and Key Action 3 (KA3) which is for the support of reformation policies.

European Voluntary Service

Since 1991 the University of Madeira Students’ Union has developed a wide incentive policy for voluntary work. In 2013 the Students’ Union started the process to receive, send and coordinate Erasmus+ projects of the European Voluntary Service, in order to have a larger influence in the volunteering field. The Union received its first volunteer withing the ambit of a KA1 project in 2014. Many efforts have been done to allow young people from Madeira to take part in several initiatives in Europe, as well as propose several projects allowing young people from several countries to work in the projects of the Students’ Union of the University of Madeira. The main goal of the voluntary work is the contribution of the volunteers to the communities and places they will be staying, being their work not rewarded with payment.

We believe that the European Voluntary Service is a mechanism full of experiences, allowing the approved candidates to have the privilege of taking part in these projects and benefit the places and communities where these volunteers will be staying.

Since 2013, the University of Madeira Students’ Union has received volunteers that have collaborated in several activities and initiatives. Besides being able to enjoy a wonderful experience which will contribute to their personal and professional growth, they are able to contribute in a unique way to the community in which they are inserted and to join dozens of volunteers from the University of Madeira.