The house-visiting wassail practice is a Christmas tradition that still prevails in various localities throughout Bizkaia. Groups of children, youth or adults, sing songs to celebrate the birth of our Lord as their tour the streets and neighbourhoods and, in some cases, ask for alms. Let us describe the Marijesiak celebrations in Gernika-Lumo. The term Marijesiak (a blend of the names Maria –Mary– and Jesus) refers to the old popular stanzas as well as the singers who parade.
Both texts and ritual are thought to be vestiges of an ancient allegorical religious play acted out in the charter city. Episodes from the sacred history in the form of chants are performed during the small hours of the morning for the nine days prior to Christmas Eve.
In the past only men participated in the Marijesiak chanting and marching, but since the late 1960s female singers do also take part. A soloist advances the chorus men and women at all times. As the leader sings a stanza, the group responds. Soloists vary from day to day. Text and melody change as Christmas Eve comes closer: different verses are sung for the first five early mornings and the following three, leading to a last round of chants that depict the Nativity scene and are interpreted on the morning of Christmas Eve.
The march starts outside Andra Mari parish church. The participants kneel down before the door that faces Lumo and sing a salutation hymn to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. On the way they stop at every church and chapel, and other significant spots such as shelters where citizens died during the 1937 bombing, place of residence of recognized vocal soloists, and so on.
In former times the Marijesiak round exit had a set route. However, since the city has grown in size and other neighbourhoods require the presence of the singers, the itinerary is periodically modified in order to cover as much of the vicinity as possible.
On Christmas Eve morning, once the early round is over, special Mass service is kept with the participation of the marchers. Door-to-door and neighbourhood-to-neighbourhood wassailing continues afterwards. Charitable contributions are destined to social purposes.
Here is the Marijesiak opening stanza: Abendu santu honetan/ Kristoren jaiotzean,/ kontentuaren handiz/ guztiok poz gaitean. Maria, Jose, Jesus, Maria. (In holy December/ when Christ is born/ with great delight/ let us all joy. Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Mary).
Segundo Oar-Arteta – Etniker Bizkaia – Etniker Euskalerria Groups
Translated by Jaione Bilbao – Language Department – Labayru Fundazioa
Click here to watch a video of Marijesiak wassailing in Ea and Gernika.
For further information see Marijesiak. Abenduko koplak. Labayru Fundazioa, Bilbao, 2014.