Christmas in the Basque Country

Christmas in the Basque Country

December arrives and with the onset of the month the cold becomes more noticeable, the days are clearly shorter and Christmas is just around the corner. It is also a time with so many public holidays that it is normal to take advantage of them and visit other places during the last holidays of the year.

Many people come to the Basque Country at this time of year, so we are going to give you some ideas for Christmas in the Basque Country, so that you can make the most of your stay.

Nativity Scene and skating rink

Whether you go to one of the Basque capitals or to a rural house in the middle of nowhere, Christmas is a time with a lot to do in the Basque Country. For example, every town, large and small, is decorated with lights, Christmas trees, garlands and nativity scenes. In fact, the Monumental Nativity Scene in the Plaza de la Florida in Vitoria is one of the most interesting in the world, according to the World Federation of Nativity Scene Makers! It is made up of 200 life-size figures scattered throughout the park and will delight young and old alike.

In the same square where this nativity scene is placed, in Vitoria there is a skating rink. But it is not the only one, in Bilbao, Zalla and Irún there are also skating rinks during Christmas, in Irún in fact this year they have set up 3! So if you feel like doing something different while you warm up with exercise, ice skating may be an option.

Christmas markets in Basque Country

And if you are looking for a different kind of gift, you can visit one of the many Christmas markets that are organised around this time of year. The ones in San Sebastian and Bilbao are set up along the rivers, and the one in Vitoria in the centre.

There you will find crafts made by local artists and those from the surrounding area, typical products to take back home and share with family and friends…. With so many options, you’re sure to find something that suits you!

Christmas in the Basque Country

Traditional Christmas market in Plaza Nueva in Vitoria. Photo by Cadena Ser.

Speaking of local products, if what you want is to taste the Basque gastronomy, Christmas is a perfect time for it, as pastry shops and bakeries are full of handmade nougat, king cakes, Christmas sweets…

But you can also visit one of the many markets in the Basque Country. Ordizia, Gernika or Tolosa are some examples of the most important open-air markets in the region, and if what you like is cooking and eating, a visit is a must.

Santo Tomás´s Fair

Another occasion to enjoy Basque gastronomy is the Santo Tomás fair on the 21st. Celebrated mainly in San Sebastian, Bilbao, Azpeitia and Mondragon (where it is held on 22 December), the Santo Tomás fair has its origins in the old market that used to be held in San Sebastian on this date, when the caseros (farmers) from the surrounding area would come down to the capital to pay the rents on their land and organise a large market with their best produce, and which was also the time to enjoy the first cider and txistorra (Basque sausage) of the year.

Do you know more fairs?

Talogiles (talo makers) in San Sebastian.

Nowadays you don’t have to pay the rents, but especially the people of San Sebastian, we still dress up in our traditional clothes, and spend the day drinking cider and eating txistorra. The latter is usually eaten in a talo, a traditional cornmeal tortilla to which you can also add bacon, cheese or chocolate, or whatever combination you like best! If you can’t be at the Santo Tomás fair (which we highly recommend you visit), you can always try the talos at some of the street stalls that are set up at this time of year.

Olentzero Mari Domingi

If, as well as traditional food, you want to enjoy a traditional Basque Christmas, you can always pay a visit to the Olentzero, our “Santa Claus”. His house is in Izenaduba Basoa (website in Spanish), near Mungia, and there, as well as meeting the Olentzero and asking him for presents, you can learn about Basque mythology. A perfect plan for families with children.

Olentzero and his wife, Mari Domingi.

If you can’t come to the Olentzero, don’t worry, because the Olentzero can come to you. The three Basque capitals and many towns hold a parade or procession on 24 December, the day on which the Olentzero hands out presents to those who have been good (the bad ones will get coal, obviously). And if you are more into the Three Wise Men, they also have parades all over the Basque Country on the 5th of January. An excellent opportunity for the little ones to enjoy themselves.

 The basque San Silvestre

But we don’t just have activities for children and foodies. Sportsmen and women also have their place in the Basque Country’s Christmas season. Starting with the San Silvestre races that are organised in many towns and villages on 31 December and ending with the typical climb up a mountain on 1 January, to start the year off right.

In the Basque Country we are very mountain people and it is very typical to climb Gorbea, Adarra or Zaldiaran on the first day of the year. If sport is your thing, don’t hesitate to join the locals and enjoy the spectacular views from one of the region’s most famous mountains.