With the arrival of the festive season, Bizkaia transforms itself. The Christmas spirit fills every nook and cranny. Streets, parks and buildings are lit up and full of colour, and shops and houses’ windows are decorated with trees and Christmas motifs. Exhibitions of nativity scenes, street performances and special theatrical events are held, while carols can be heard in each and every corner.
It is time to decide what you want for Christmas, to write your letters to Olentzero and the Wise Men, to visit traditional and more modern local shops, to look for a bargain or the perfect Secret Santa gift at vintage flea markets or find out handicraft products made with love by local artisans at any of the Christmas street markets that pack the squares. It is also a good moment to enter a patisserie and indulge yourself with a sweet treat, choosing between any of our traditional cakes and desserts, or to make a strategic stop at one of the hot chestnut stalls to restock on energy.
It will be different this time, but Christmas is usually the perfect moment to unwind and go to taverns and bars to savour our pintxos, little gems of gastronomy that are lined up along most bar counters. In Biscay, meeting your family or your group of friends—here known as 'cuadrilla'—to wish them a merry Christmas is the perfect excuse to pay a visit to our favourite pintxo bars and sing along traditional songs and carols.
Although it won't be taking place this year, St Thomas Fair is the celebration that marks the start of the holiday season in Biscay. This traditional fair is held a few days before Christmas, on December 21st, and the rural atmosphere takes over the center of the cities, with farm animal exhibits and stalls full of the best regional products, the fruits of the labour of our farmers and villagers, indispensable in our gastronomy for cooking our traditional recipes.
In Bilbao, people gather at Plaza Nueva and El Arenal to taste and buy honey, txakoli, cheese, vegetables, fruit or capons, as well as other deli products that are perfect for every Christmas lunch or dinner. Friends also get together to enjoy the festive and rural ambience of the fair, eating talos with chorizo, which are much better accompanied with some tasty cider. We'll miss it so much this year!
However, the youngest members of the family have something else in mind: Olentzero, a mythological charcoal burner, associated with pre-Christian winter solstice celebrations, that has become part of the Christmas tradition in Biscay. He is the one in charge of delivering presents to local children on Christmas Eve. According to the song composed in his honour—which you can hear everywhere during these days—, this friendly character is known to have a big head, a pot belly, and a fondness for drinking. He is, without doubt, one of the most important figures during Christmas in Biscay.
Olentzero's house is located in the woods, in a place known as Izenaduba Basoa, in Mungia. In this same forest, you can also find the oldest baserri in Bizkaia, Landetxo Goikoa, built at the start of the 16th century. Apart from visiting the house of Biscayan children’s favorite charcoal burner and meeting Napo, Olentzero's indefatigable donkey, you can take a dramatized tour of Izenaduba Basoa. This fun interactive tour will acquaint you with the Basque mythology, full of magical creatures such as Galtzagorri, Tartalo, Basajaun and Mari, the lady of Anboto.
The Christmas season in Biscay keeps another surprise for the children. In their towns and neighbourhoods, all kind of activities are organized for them, and the museums run children’s workshops for the younger ones, where they can learn while having lots of fun.
To say goodbye to the old year and to welcome the New Year, as good lovers of their natural environment and mountains, Biscayan people go hillwalking. By tradition, on January 1st, people climb the highest mountain in the region, Mount Gorbeia, to reach the cross at the summit at 1,482 metres. What is more, those who want to watch the very first sunrise of the new year from the top make their ascent in the dark so as not to miss such a special sight.Christmas in Bizkaia