December 25, 2007
As an outsider looking onto what is completely routine and normal in the town of Portugalete, of Bizkaia, País Vasco, España, I note things to myself that people here take for absolute granted. For example, I am constantly aware of the ethnic pride-slash-mild superiority complex that perfumes the air. I get it: it’s partly reactionary after decades of oppression from Generalissimus Franco, partly fanatical in some cases – we all know about ETA – partly completely normal for any tight culturally bound group. Aren’t we all a chosen people?
Now, the Basques were traditionally a mountain people, shepherds, agriculturalists, always productive upon the green soil of the Iberic North. These days this translates into a fierce sense of us vs. them, and we are the best. Best chefs? Bilbao. Best wine? Rioja. Best fish? Basque. Best meat? Cantabria. The North feeds the South, according to the Basque truth. There is a saying: “No me he quema’o porque soy de Bilbao.” I didn’t get burned, because I’m from Bilbao. Yup. That’s how it is. (My truth is, it IS freaking gorgeous out here. No matter how huge the city is, the mountains surrounding it, that bred the Basques who think they’re the best, make everything seem rustic.)
View from kitchen window:
Last night tops the cake, though. Don’t know how I missed this before. Forget politics and economics. Here is how we’ll assert ethnic pride:
In Spain, they celebrate Christmas like anyone on the 24th/25th, but give presents on the 6th of January, when the reyes (I don’t know who they are, exactly, but it’s in the New Testament, and in ALL the paintings) come to see baby Jesus, adore him, and bring the gifts, ie the Nintendo Wii, the new iPod, house slippers, power drill, or whatever.
Here, in the Basque country, though, the reyes, Santa Clause and the whole Christmas crew take a break. Here we have the Olentzero.
He is WAY Basque. Dressed in the customary sheepherder aldeano outfit, with a pipe and a drink (of course) he is paraded down the main street of each town (7pm in Portugalete, 8pm neighboring town of Sestao, 9pm in the next town of Barakaldo etc), followed by various Basques bearing flags, then a small herd of sheep, then some pigs, then some castrated baby bulls, then a bunch of kids also all dressed up in the ethnic outfit with Bengal lights and torches (fake, I hope, but I fear that not). The adults cheer, toast champagne, txikitos, and martinis, and everyone is ecstatic. Where is baby Jesus in all this? Who knows. Who cares.
So that’s what I did yesterday. I watched the parade, and toasted and played with other people’s kids. I kept looking around for someone with whom to share the wonder of this whole ordeal. I WISH I could communicate what this felt like!! But it’s what they do every year. Nothing odd.
Who needs THEIR commercial Santa. We are from Bilbao. We’ve got our own. He’s a shepherd. He’s got wool socks, a boina (the beret), a pipe, a drink. He ain’t getting burned. Watup, Vascos.