Nothing says “Christmas” like a charcoal-burner from the mountains who drinks 100 liters of wine before coming to town bringing presents for the kiddies, with every imaginable farm animal in tow. That is, assuming you live in the Basque Country and revere Olentzero (pronounced oh-len-CHE-ro). Most of what we know about Olentzero comes from songs about him, which include such lyrical gems as: “Oh big-bellied pig!/Tralaralala, tralaralala.” Or, “Ribs and pork loin/so many intestines/because Jesus is born.”
Basques welcome this pipe-smoking mountain man by dressing up in old-school clothes and throwing a parade. In reality, it seems more like a showcase for Basque culture than the hero’s welcome other parts of Spain give the Three Kings—it comes complete with traditional dances, local sheep, and giant-copper-bell ringers.
Similarities to Santa: Large size; pipe-smoking; red nose (you can’t convince me that Santa hasn’t also been hitting the hot toddies). Lives somewhere cold. Brings presents. Wife with interesting headwear.
It’s a well-known fact that the three kings have helpers, and in Spain they’re called pajes. Their most prominent appearance takes place in Alcoy, Alicante, at the the world’s oldest King-welcoming parade (cabalgata in Spanish). So where’s the weird?
First of all, the pajes, along with King Balthazar, are all in blackface. We Americans instinctively shudder when we see this, and it’s featured in almost every cabalgata in the country. Yikes.
Also freaky: this legion of pajes scales Alcoy’s buildings, bringing presents via the balconies. And the kids accept them with open arms. (Whereas I would probably hide under my bed if a person painted their face black—or any other color, for that matter—and came through my window.)
Similarities to Santa: Aversion to front doors. Bringing presents.
Over in Catalonia, things get even earthier with the caganer, a defecating peasant essential to any belén (nativity scene). Yep: pants down, ass in the air, pile of shit on the floor—the whole nine yards.
As if that weren’t enough, last year they even built a 6 meter-high caganer in Maremagnum, the shopping mall in Barcelona’s port. Supposedly, it was the largest in the world (something tells me not to dispute this). My visiting mother, who doesn’t speak Spanish, saw this on the news and her jaw dropped to the floor. After explaining what it was, my husband and I tried to find her one at Madrid’s Christmas market. “Do you have the man that poops to put in the belén?” we asked timidly. The shopkeeper, snootily, replied only, “We don’t sell caganers here.” Definitely a Barcelona thing.
Want a caganer of your own but don’t have a trip to Spain in the works? Check this out.
Similarity to Santa: Red hat. Large presence in shopping malls. Leaves a “gift” behind.
4. Caga tío
Is that not the weirdest thing you’ve ever heard? YouTube it and prepare to laugh your ass off. If you know of a stranger tradition, please, tell me below!
Similarities to Santa: Red hat. Propensity for fireplaces. Eats whatever food the kids leave for it.