Basque Fact of the Week: Paulino Uzcudun, the “Basque Woodchopper”

My dad’s favorite sport to watch was boxing. I never asked him why (so many questions were never asked…) but I always assumed that it was because, of the sports on our American TV, boxing was the most straightforward, something he didn’t have to grow up with to understand, unlike American football. However, I recently learned about Paulino Uzcudun and now I wonder if maybe my dad had known about him and that is where is love of boxing came from…

Paulino Uzcudun, the “Basque Woodchopper.” Photo from Wikipedia.
  • Paulino Uzcudun was born in the Gurutze baserria in the town of Errezil, Gipuzkoa, in 1899. Even as a child, he was known for his immense strength. When his father died, he left home, eventually becoming a butcher in Donosti. In his youth, he became known as an excellent aizkolari, or woodchopper, hence his eventually boxing nickname.
  • In 1923, after completing his military service, he went to Paris to begin his professional boxing career. During his career, he became heavyweight champion first of Spain, in 1924, and then latter of Europe, in 1926. He began boxing in the United States in 1927.
  • He had many memorable bouts during his career, facing off with heavyweight champions including Max Baer (who he beat) and Primo Carnera (who he lost to twice). Perhaps the pinnacle of his career occurred in Yankee Stadium on June 27, 1929. Uzcudun lost a semi-final bout for a chance at the world title, losing in points after 15 rounds, to the German Max Schmeling, who later won the title. He would go on to fight Schmeling two more times, drawing once and losing their last bout.
  • The newspaper writer Grantland Rice wrote these stanzas about Uzcudun in 1929, emphasizing Uzcudun’s stocky and rugged stance:
This axman from the Pyrennees 
Is tougher than his native trees. 
And no man yet has made [him] run, 
I mean Paolino Uzcudun. 


He has a large and hairy paw, 
They break their fists upon his jaw; 
For socking rock is not much fun, 
I mean Paolino Uzcudun. 


He has a chest built like a cask, 
This heavy, thick-set, burly Basque, 
Who grins to see his claret run, 
I mean Paolino Uzcudun.
  • Paulino’s last fight, in 1935, was with Joe Louis, the famous “Brown Bomber”. Louis was a brutal fighter and Uzcudun was at the sunset of his career. Louis stopped Uzcudun in the 4th round with blows that Columnist Jim Murray later described: “Louis knocked Uzcudun’s gold teeth in so many directions, the ring looked as if somebody had stepped on a railroad watch.” It was the first time, in his 70 professional fights, that Uzcudun had been knocked off his feet.

Thanks to Eneko Sagarbide for introducing me to Paulino.

Primary sources: Boxing.com: Some Like it Hot, by Mike Casey; Wikipedia; Arozamena Ayala, Ainhoa. UZCUDUN, Paulino. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2020. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/uzcudun-paulino/ar-136928/

Basque Fact of the Week: Félix Erausquin, a Champion Thrower

Basques like to lift and carry heavy things. Basques like to cut up logs. Basques like to pull on ropes. And some Basques like to throw things. Perhaps the best thrower of things in Basque history was Félix Erausquin Erausquin. Born in Zeanuri, Bizkaia in 1907, Erausquin was one of the most decorated athletes of his time.

Félix Erausquin, image from the blog Atletismo e Historia.
  • In his prime, Erausquin was champion of Spain in multiple sports that involved throwing objects. From 1932 to 1957, he won a total of 27 championships in shot put, discus, Basque bar, and the javelin. He is only one of only four athletes (the other three being García Tuñón, Ignacio Izaguirre and Miguel de la Quadra-Salcedo) who held Spanish titles in 3 out of 4 of the throwing events.
  • He was set to attend the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin, but due to political upheavals ongoing in Spain at the time, he was unable to go. His first international competition didn’t come until 1948, when he competed in the London Olympics in discus, finishing 14th out of 28 at an age of 41. He continued to compete into his 70s and won the senior World Championship in discus in 1979. At an age of 72, he threw it 39.44 meters.
  • He is perhaps most famous for developing an entirely novel way of throwing the javelin, a style that became known as the Erausquin style. Based on how he threw the Basque bar, in this new technique, the thrower spun around, giving extra heft to the javelin. In 1956, when he was 48 years old, he set a new Spanish record in the javelin with relative ease using his new technique. Also using this new style, Migual de la Quadra Salcedo beat the world record and, for the first time, threw the javelin more than 100 meters. However, within a year regulations were changed to ban this new technique, because of the dangers it posed by inexperienced throwers facing the audience as they spun. None of the records using the Erausquin style became official.
  • Palanka jaurtiketa, or metal bar throwing and often referred to as barra vasca, is a traditional Basque rural sport inspired by miners in which a heavy metal bar (8-25 kg or 17-55 pounds) is thrown as far as possible. While multiple throwing techniques exist, one is to turn or spin as it is thrown.
  • Erausquin was also an accomplished boxer and his large hands led to the nickname “la coz de mula” or “mule kick.” His hands were so large that, when he played the piano, he had to use the sides of his fingers or he’d hit two keys at the same time.

Thanks to Eneko Sagarbide, Félix’s great nephew, for educating me about Félix.

Primary sources: García Martínez de Murguia, José María. ERAUSQUIN ERAUSQUIN, Félix. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2020. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/erausquin-erausquin-felix/ar-39685/; Wikipedia.

Basque Fact of the Week: Trees in Basque Politics and Religion

The tree of Gernika is easily the most famous tree in the Basque Country. Once the gathering site where important decisions were made and kings had to take oaths to preserve Basque liberties, it has remained an icon and cultural symbol of the Basque people. However, it is not the only important tree in the country. Trees are intertwined in the politics, history, and culture of the Basques from pre-historic times.

The painting El Árbol Malato (1882) by Mamerto Seguí. From the blog of Félix Mugurutza.
  • The tree of Gernika is only one of several trees that served as gathering points for politics. In Bizkaia alone, there are at least four other trees where meetings were held and sovereigns received. The people of Encartaciones met under the oak of Abellaneda while those of the Duranguesado met under the oak of Gerediaga. According to the Fueros of Bizkaia, the people were to receive the Lord of Bizkaia under the tree of Aretxabalagana.
  • Living in such a mountainous and wooded terrain, the Basques clearly had a close relationship with trees. This is exemplified by a phrase recorded by Basque priest, musician, writer and academic Resurrección María de Azkue at the beginning of the 20th century: “Guk botako zaitugu eta barkatu isuzu” (“we will cut you down; forgive us”).
  • While not a lot is known about pre-historic Basque beliefs, mostly because they didn’t write much down, a little comes to use from the times of Aquitaine. The Aquitaines are now thought to be a cultural ancestor to the modern Basques. In inscriptions left in what is now Gascony, they mention a number of gods related to trees. These include Sexarbori (six trees in Latin), Fagus (beech in Latin), Abellion (apple tree in Gaulish), Areix(o) (oak in Basque), Artahe (evergreen oak in Basque) and Leheren (pinein Basque). Not much is known about these deities.
  • Trees are also connected to the legends of the Basque Country. For example, way back in the 9th century, the Basques, under the leadership of the mythical Jaun Zuria, were fighting the Leonese army. In the battle of Padura, they chased the Leonese to Luyando, in Araba. There they stuck a sword in a tree and promised to follow Jaun Zuria there whenever needed. That tree, Árbol Malato (in Basque, Malato Zuhaitza) or Árbol Gafo, marks the boundary of the Lordship of Bizkaia.

Basque Fact of the Week: Tree Carvings of the Sheepherders

People, particularly boys and young men, have an almost uncontrollable impulse to leave their mark on their surroundings. Whether the graffiti that decorates the hearts of large cities or the now-preserved etchings of Spanish conquistadors on the rocks of El Morro, we have to show others we’ve already been there. The same is true of the lonely Basque men who wandered the back country of the American West with their flocks of sheep, though their canvas was the aspen trees that dotted the landscape.

Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe contemplating a carving on an aspen. Photo from the Society of Environmental Journalists.
  • Basque arborglyphs, as carvings in trees are called, have been found all over the western United States, stretching north-south from Washington state to Texas and east-west from North Dakota to California. Wherever Basque shepherds found themselves in groves of aspens, they made their mark on the soft bark of the trees.
  • No one has done more to study these arborglyphs than Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, a former professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. Joxe has written extensively about the arborglyphs, most prominently in his book Speaking Through the Aspens.
  • The carvings span topics and themes from simply recording names to renderings of people (including female forms in various states of undress) and animals to ruminations on life. Often, they complained about the work and loneliness: Joxe and his colleagues have found carvings saying that the camp tender was a “lazy donkey with a sombrero,” “Sheep, you are killing me,” and “If [sheepherder] life is what these damn oldtimers told me it was, my balls are carnations.”
  • The trees also served as a way to communicate. Herders would carve messages that others would follow up on. For example, on one tree, one herder wrote “Wine and women both are good.” Several years later, another responded “Yes, but they are hard on your pocket.”
  • Of course, carving into trees isn’t a uniquely Basque activity. Irish sheepherders also made their marks on the aspens and everyone is familiar with the lovers who carve their initials onto trees. However, tree carvings go back much further. Both Native Americans and the Maori carved onto the surfaces of trees, marking astronomical events or recording their ancestry.

Primary source: Carving Out History: The Basque Aspens by Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, in Forest History Today, Spring/Fall 2001.

Basque Fact of the Week: Old Basque Documents in the Americas

The Basques, in their never-ending quest for new fishing and whaling grounds, pushed ever west, encountering Iceland, Greenland, and ultimately what would become Canada. At the same time, they were a large part of the Spanish conquistadors that pushed through South and Central America. It thus should come as no surprise that some of the oldest documents in the Basque language come from the Americas or that some of the oldest documents in the Americas are Basque.

The back page of Domingo de Luça’s will. Image from Canada’s History.
  • The oldest letter in the Basque language was written by Juan Zumarraga Laritz, the first bishop of Mexico, where he ultimately died. Zumarraga was born in 1468 in Durango, Bizkaia. As bishop, he was very influential in the development of the Catholic Church in Mexico. He made ultimately vain attempts to protect the native peoples against the abuses of Spanish authorities. He is also credited with making chocolate a popular drink for Europeans.
  • He wrote his letter, dated 1537, to Kattalin Ruiz Muntsaratz of Abadiño, Bizkaia. Kattalin was the lady of the castle of Muntsaratz, and Zumarraga was trying to arrange a marriage between his nephew and Kattalin’s daughter, Mari Inigez. While much of the letter is in Spanish, at some point, the bishop began writing in Basque. As described by Joxe Mallea Olaetxe, there are a number of reasons Zumarraga might write in Basque. There were sentimental reasons to write in his first language. But, more importantly, he was trying to smuggle silver from Mexico to Bizkaia and wanted to avoid scrutiny as much as possible. And so, he wrote in the “forgotten language,” as he called it.
  • Much further north, in Newfoundland, Basques were also active on the coast, fishing and hunting whales. The dangers of this journey and the occupation itself meant many Basques spent their last days on the Canadian coast. This was the case for Joanes de Etxaniz (1584), the inspiration for Guillermo Zubiaga’s Joanes comic; Juanes de Larrume (1577); and Domingo de Luça (1563). Each left behind their will and de Luça’s will, discovered some 450 years later by Dr. Michael Barkham, is now thought to be the oldest civil document we have that was written in Canada.
  • De Luça got sick not long after arriving in the Americas. Knowing how ill he was, he dictated his will and requested that he be buried in “this port of Plazençia in the place where those who die here are usually buried.” He left everything to his wife, María Martín de Aguinaga of Hondarribia. He also laid out the debts he owed and those that were owed him, in an effort to reconcile his accounts after his death.

Basque Fact of the Week: Breakfast in the Baserri

Whenever I would visit my aunt and uncle in Munitibar, when they ran the Herriko Taberna, my breakfast always consisted of a pastry, often a bollo de mantequilla, and coffee. However, in the baserris they grew up in, breakfast was very different. I can only imagine that, even if food was plentiful, ingredients were limited. In the old days, breakfasts in the Basque countryside often consisted of porridges made from cornmeal.

Enjoying a bowl of Morokil. Image from eitb.eus.
  • One typical breakfast was morokil. Usually made from cornmeal, water and salt, it was cooked until it turned into a cream. When it is served, it is usually mixed with hot milk. In the richer houses, they made it directly with milk, making it creamer from the beginning. The paste could also be used to make what were called “hormigos” which would be served with a syrup. Here are video-recipes of morokil and hormigos. And here is a more modern twist on morokil.
  • Another variant of this type of breakfast is aixe. Made in a similar way, instead of using cornmeal, aixe is made with wheat flour and sugar, and using milk instead of water. For each liter of milk, about 60 grams of flour and 300 grams of sugar were added. It was often topped off with cinnamon when served. So, it is much sweeter and considered a more special treat, often reserved for Sundays.
  • Of course, similar foods are eaten all over. Way back in Roman times, they ate a similar porridge, so much so that a typical insult for Romans was “porridge eaters.” The modern Italian polenta is essentially the same type of food.
  • Corn, however, is a relatively recent addition to the Basque diet, coming by way of the Americas in the 1600s. Thus, foods such as morokil weren’t part of the diet before then. Millet was one of the primary foods. In fact, one Basque word for corn, arto, used to refer to millet. Seems like the word was simply transferred to the new crop once it became plentiful.

Primary source: EuskoNews.

Nor Naiz, Gu Gara: PJ Mansisidor

Nor Naiz, Gu Gara (Who I Am, We Are) is a series aiming to explore the meaning of Basque Identity around the world, both within Euskal Herria as well as in the diaspora. For an introduction to the series, look here, and for a list of the previous entries, look here. I started this series back in 2010 and am reviving it. If you are interested in contributing, let me know.

Basque identity from a well-traveled, second-generation Basque living in Idaho.

By P.J. Mansisidor

Let’s start this off with a poke right in the eye.  Humans desire meaning and purpose to their lives so not having an identity is like missing part of one’s soul.  Identity gives us clarity to where we come from, who we are and where we are going.  Each identity, like the soul, is unique but Basque heritage provides a foundation that provides a unique bond.  It’s a bond that transcends generations, distance and backgrounds.  All great stories come in three Acts so let’s roll right into this.

Act I – Where I come from

I grew up in a Basque family on a small farm in a small town.  That sentence is an identity right there, but it could be anywhere in the world.  However, Homedale, Idaho has the benefit of having a Basque population and is less than an hour from Boise, Idaho, a large population of Basque people.  Every parent tells their child that they are special.  Being told you are Basque was the same thing in my family.  Both my parents were 1st generation children to Basque immigrants that owned and worked their own sheep camps and boarding house.  I based my background on stories of family work ethic, honorable nature and superhuman endurance to work as long and hard as the world required to uphold the family name that represented those values.  Interestingly enough, this wasn’t just a trait of being a ‘Mansisidor’, it was also the general trait for Basque people.  I was fortunate to be surrounded by those hard-working Basque people in Homedale and Boise.  I was born Basque, however, I didn’t identify as ‘Basque’ as much as I was related to them.  That identity wasn’t mine yet and I feared I wasn’t good enough or strong enough to live up to my ancestors.

Act II – Who am I

Developing an identity without a background is difficult.  I was fortunate to be born Basque, but I didn’t yet believe I was ‘Basque’.  Don’t understand my meaning?  Ok, go to church and ask a teenager, “Do you believe in God?”  They’ll pause, look worried and answer ‘Yes’.  Doubt is the biggest obstacle to faith of any kind.  Faith in God, faith in yourself, faith in others. I didn’t know myself well enough to have faith I even knew what my identity was or should be.  

My parents involved me and my siblings in the Basque community and festivals.  We took Basque dance lessons and performed at festivals.  However, by the time I reached Jr. High School (7 & 8 grade) dressing up and dancing around became a liability in front of my non-Basque school friends and sports.  It was hard to explain why I was dancing when I didn’t own or believe in that identity yet and my friends certainly didn’t get it.  At 14 years old Jay Hormechea changed that path when I told her I wasn’t joining the Oinkari Basque dancers in Boise.  She grabbed my arm, hauled me away from my mother and looked at me: ‘Your father danced, your sister and brothers danced… you will dance!’  Now that my mind had been made up for me, I joined the Oinkari.  (Turns out, Jay used the same tone when she met my Dad outside the Basque dance hall in 1960 and said ‘Are you Basque? Then get in here!’)

PJ with the ikurrina.

The Oinkari practice each Sunday in Boise so I went with my siblings and happily met new friends in the same boat as me.  We were all able to reinvent ourselves in the Oinkari and transcend our fragile school identities (Version 1.0) and begin our improved self-identities (Version 2.0). Among this group I found that people my age valued and aspired to the values of being Basque.  I became a better dancer and was appreciated for it.  I gained confidence and faith in myself.  This led to my identity epiphany.  Confronted by friends at school being teased about a photo of me dancing in Basque costume I suddenly found myself snapping back saying “Yeah, I’m Basque, we work hard, play hard and celebrate by dancing!” I looked at each of them, “What have you got?” The biggest one of them was the first to recover from his shock and with a head hung in shame he quietly said, ‘I don’t have anything, I’m actually jealous you have something so fun to be a part of.”  Faith in identity earned, I’m definitely Basque.

Act III – Where am I going 

After that epiphany, the veil that clouded my path lifted.  I’m not saying I knew where I was going exactly but I did know that I’d get there by improving my work ethic, honorable nature and superhuman abilities – being Basque.  I traveled with the Oinkari Basque Dancers across the country, making new, life-long friends and creating enduring memories attributed to being part of the extended family of Basques around the world.  No matter the language, dialect, background, we all had a common connection that we are Basque.  We shared dances steps, card games and all learned what it meant to be Basque from other places.  We found value in being Basque but also the type of Basque we were as individuals. I was separated from the Basque community for about 7 years working out of Spokane, Washington, and traveling around the world for work.  When I traveled to other parts of the United States, I had to remember to explain the history of Basque to everyone.  That’s right, not everyone knows we exist.  Europe was more aware of Basque but still just as curious about meeting a Basque from the U.S.  I eventually moved back to Homedale and joined the Oinkari again. I became President of the club and during one “new-kid” introduction where new 14-year-old dancers come to practice and introduced themselves I found my next path.  These kids were shy already but then standing up they explained a little of their lineage, “I’m only 1/2 Basque from my Dad/Mom”, “I’m only 1/4 Basque from my Grandmother”.  After the third time of hearing an ‘only’ and a fraction I stopped the group.  “Just so you all know, we are the ‘Basque’ dancers.  If you are here, you are Basque.  You can save the fractions for math class.”  I like to think I gave some 14-year-old a bit more faith in their identity that day.  Since that time, I have enjoyed welcoming visitors from the Basque Country and showing them how we celebrate our heritage.  I even had one girl say, “I had to come to the United States to understand what it means be Basque.”  We not only like and take pride in ourselves, we celebrate and share it with others.  It’s been eye opening to have non-Basque people come to our community and they, themselves volunteer, support, celebrate, donate, work hard and emulate all the traits I associate with Basque.  Though they are not Basque by blood they have endeared themselves to our community and been accepted into our village.

Curtain Call

Work takes up a lot of my time now. I’m no longer dancing with the Oinkari but I still remain active in the Basque community.  I’ve been dating a non-Basque woman with two young teenagers.  It’s not easy being a teenager or dealing with them as they search for their own identity.   But then I think about the teenagers I’ve taken around the country and the world with the Basque Dancers.  I took my two teenagers to the Sheepherder’s ball in Boise not long ago.  Their fascination and awe in the large group of people but all the friendly interactions and dancing reminded me that even a little example of who we are can have a positive impact on others.  It’s too bad that not everyone can benefit from having a village behind them to guide them to find their identities.  Many are left to dig up something from YouTube, Instagram and any other random outlet they can find to try and define where they come from, who they are and where they are going.  Now, my Basque may be different from your Basque, but I think we share a common pride that we are Basque and there are Basque traits we seek to see in ourselves.  I hope to continue to share my heritage with others to provide them with some background they can identify with and have faith in themselves as I do because I have faith that I am, because we are.

PJ Mansisidor was raised on his family’s farm in Homedale, Idaho.  He earned a B.S. Mechanical Engineering degree from University of Idaho and an MBA from Northwest Nazarene University. PJ has traveled extensively in the U.S. and abroad.  He spent one summer living in Donostia (San Sebastian) studying at Esquela De Pais Vasco. PJ currently works at POWER Engineers in Boise, Idaho as a Sr. Packaging Engineer.  He is active in the Boise Basque Ezukaldunak club as we all the Homedale Txoko Ona club.  He continues to play pala and esku and is the Expo Idaho Chairman for Jaialdi 2015 and Jaialdi 2020.

Basque Fact of the Week: Basque-ing in Green Energy

Basques seem to always be looking outside of the box. The same spirit that led so many young men and women to leave their homes to search for a better life in the remote American West leads others to experiment with molecular gastronomy, to embrace punk rock, and to build a Guggenheim. It also drives the Basque Country to look for new sources of energy to power their modern society. Basque companies such as Iberdrola and Gamesa are pushing the frontiers of solar and wind energies and beyond.

The wave power plant in Mutriku. Image from Wave Energy Basque Country.
  • Even though the Basque Country is not known for its high winds, and the Basque Autonomous Community (Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, Araba) only represents 0.6 percent of Spain’s wind power, Iberdrola and Gamesa are the two biggest players in Spain in this space. Iberdrola already generates 143 MW of wind energy and is part of a joint venture to create new wind farms in the Basque Country. Other companies in the Basque Country are at the forefront of developing off-shore wind platforms.
  • Along with other companies, Gamesa is part of Windbox, an Advanced Manufacturing Center just outside of Eibar which aims to further develop wind power technologies and give Basque companies in this energy sector a competitive edge. Windbox provides testing facilities to examine the performance of various components of wind turbine systems.
  • Another surprise is the Basque involvement in solar. Given the constant grey skies and xirimiri that are so characteristic of Euskal Herria, one would think that solar has little role there. However, companies like Iberdrola are developing solar energy in other parts of Spain, such as two 400 MW solar parks Castilla-La Mancha. This is in addition to a 590 MW park in Extremadura.
  • Closer to home, the Basque Country is working to extract energy from the tides. Towns like Mundaka are famous for their surfing and the same waves carry a lot of energy that can be used to power local homes and businesses. In Mutriku, they are pioneering a wave-based power station, and have it connected to the grid, supplying enough energy to sustain about 600 people.

Basque Fact of the Week: Jaialdi!

As you’ve probably heard by now, 2020 is a Jaialdi year! Jaialdi, which means festival in Euskara, is the biggest Basque festival in the United States, possibly the biggest outside of the Basque Country. It is held every five years at the end of July, the weekend of San Ignacio.

Amuma Says No playing on the Basque Block at Jaialdi 2015.
  • The first Jaialdi was held in 1987, attracting some 30,000 visitors. At the time, it wasn’t envisioned as a recurring event, but, with the Idaho centennial in 1990, the then-governor of Idaho, Cecil Andrus, asked that another be organized. After the phenomenal success of the second Jaialdi, it was decided to hold the event every 5 years.
  • The first Jaialdi was held at the Old Idaho State Penitentiary. However, the festival quickly grew too large for that space and was moved to the Western Idaho Fairgrounds. I admit, I miss the intimacy and just cool feel of the Penitentiary. It was cool watching all of the events while being surrounded by those massive stone walls. But, progress means change and the Fairgrounds can accommodate all of the guests. Actually, Jaialdi is split between the Fairgrounds and the Basque Block in downtown Boise, where a lot of events and milling of people happen.
  • As one would expect, Jaialdi is full of Basque flavor. There are continual dance performances, featuring the most seasoned dancers from the United States and the Basque Country, to the youngest beginners, who always draw the most “oohs” and “awws.” There are lots of sporting exhibitions, from the most traditional txinga carry to more unique events, such as one in which the athlete has to use a rope through a pulley to pull a bail of hay up and down as many time as possible, using gravity to lift himself in the air. There are also lots of vendors selling the coolest Basque-themed gear you could ever want.
  • In addition to the events at the Fairgrounds and the music on the Basque Block, there are other special events, including Sports Night, a rural sports competition featuring weight lifting and wood chopping, and Festara, a celebration of Basque music and dance. And, scattered throughout the festival are other activities and lectures. At the last Jaialdi, for example, I attended a great lecture by Christine Bender on Basque whaling. These little gems make the festival so much richer.
  • Jaialdi is full of lots of Basque activity. However, that wasn’t really what drew my dad there. Sure, he’d watch some dances and some of the sporting events, but what really made him want to go was the people. He’d sort of just park himself somewhere on the Fairgrounds and there would be a continuous stream of people he knew but hadn’t seen for years, from old sheepherder friends to farmers and ranchers he knew from his hay route. It was almost like one huge family reunion, with all of the old timers reminiscing about the good old days. It’s similar for me, where the best part is just running in to old friends, making new ones. In the end, it’s all about the people, and there are lots of great ones at Jaialdi.

Primary sources: Euzkaldunak, Jaialdi 2020.

Basque Fact of the Week: Day of San Blas

Tomorrow, February 3, much of the Catholic world celebrates the fiestas of San Blas, or in English Saint Blaise. This festival is popular in the Basque Country, celebrated in many of the villages and cities of the country. It is noted for the unique pastries that are part of the celebration.

Cords and pastries on sale for the fiesta of San Blas in Abadiño. Photo from BBK Azoka.
  • San Blas, born in Armenia some time in the III century, is the patron saint of throat diseases. The story goes that, as he was being led to prison, where he was ultimately tortured and beheaded for not renouncing his faith, a woman came to him with her child, who was choking on a fish bone. The child was immediately cured, and hence San Blas became the patron of throat diseases.
  • Festivals surrounded San Blas abound in the Basque Country. On the day of his festival, believers take cords to church to be blessed. In Bilbao alone, 50 kilometers of cord are sold. Originally, the cords were wrapped around a piece of bread, and the blessing of the bread was also transferred to the cord itself. The belief is that, if one wears the cord around their neck for 9 days and then burns it, they will be protected from all evil. The bread itself, being also blessed, is protected from mold, and pieces are given to animals to protect them as well.
  • There are hermitages dedicated to San Blas scattered all over the Basque Country, including Gipuzkoa (Antzuola, Aretxabaleta, Bergara, Elgeta, Getaria, Mutriku, Tolosa, and Zerain), Bizkaia (Urregi), Araba (Zalduendo), and Nafarroa (Riezu, Ollogoyen, Olite, Muruzabal de Ilzarbe, Los Arcos, Lodosa, Larrasoaña, Larraga, Aradiel de Corella, Ujue and Milagro). The oldest dates to the 16th century. The one in Milagro is particularly noteworthy, as an arm of San Blas is kept as a relic. However, as noted by Collin de Plancy in 1882, “With a little research, we would find Saint Blaise armed with a hundred arms, like the giant of the fable. The fingers, teeth, feet of this voluminous saint are too scattered for us to undertake to bring them together.” 
  • Another distinguishing aspect of the festivals of San Blas is the food. When wheat bread became part of the standard Basque diet, in the 19th century, they began to bless these breads on the day of San Blas. They would enrich the bread with butter, honey, eggs, or sodas — in the Goiherri some added crushed black pepper to the bread, called piper-opillas (I couldn’t find a recipe… anyone have one?) — or the now-typical sanblases: cakes bathed with whipped egg whites and sugar, and then adorned with the name of the saint written with chocolate.

Primary sources: Wikipedia, Aguirre Sorondo, Antxon. San Blas. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2020. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/san-blas/ar-151530/

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