Basque ethnography at a glance

Floral garland

Labayru Fundazioa Photographic Archive.

April and May are particularly favourable months of the year to ensure the protection of the flourishing cultivated fields and the benefits of moderate rainfall, a time marked by a set of customs associated to lopped festive trees or poplars being erected in squares and higher grounds (a practice which often extends to St John’s or patron saint festivities), the vegetable figuration of maypoles, or mayos, in human or puppet form, the curious designation or election of virginal May queens, called mayas, or the singular marriage between juvenile May kings and queens.

Once hailed as protector of the community and its resources, the green element has been largely substituted or subjected to a process of syncretism by Christians. Thus, the maypole integrates symbolic elements, both naturalistic and religious, and has even been overshadowed by the festival of the Holy Cross (3 May), with its characteristic embellished monumental crosses, the blessing of crops and other types of floral or vegetable components.

Maypole at St John of Momoitio in Garai (Bizkaia). Josu Larrinaga Zugadi

Maypole at St John of Momoitio in Garai (Bizkaia). Josu Larrinaga Zugadi.

In the Basque Country, however, the referred custom is combined with the traditional celebration of the mayas (May queens and altars are very popular in Castile and Andalusia) and their itinerant cortèges. May a quote by W. F. von Humboldt, from his spring 1801 travel annotations on arrival from Pasaia to Donostia, in Gipuzkoa, serve as example:

“A crowd of children, mostly girls, welcomed us on the other side of the bay, playing tambourines and dancing, and accompanied us into town with great hubbub. Such begging practices are only customary during the month of May, though.”[1]

Formerly widespread, the custom is now confined to the valley of Baztan (Navarre), where the election of the queen or queens of May (let us remember that this month is consecrated by the Catholic Church to the Virgin Mary) still survives. The villages of Arraioz and Arizkun have preserved the so-called erregiñe ta saratsa, literally ‘queen and willow’, featuring the ritual crowning of May queens, wearing a white gown, a floral garland, and a blue ribbon sash at the waist or across the chest, their maids of honour often carrying them on shoulders to the sound of tambourines.

It is the representation of an agonizing tradition, which characterized by young girls asking for alms house-to-house and door-to-door. Arraioz queens and their entourage would introduce themselves with the singing of this chant:

Erregiñe ta saratsa,
neskatxa eder garbosa,
ela, ola, etxekoandrea,
atera zaitez leiora,
leiora ez bada atera.

(Queen and willow, / beautiful, dazzling young girl, / greetings to the lady of this house, / might she come to the window, / might she come to the door.)

May queens of Arizkun (Navarre), 2011. Josu Larrinaga Zugadi

May queens of Arizkun (Navarre), 2011. Josu Larrinaga Zugadi.

A slow jota executed by the queens themselves or their attendants would follow. Praise verses were dedicated to the entire household (lady and master of the house, their offspring, clerical members of the household…), passers-by being asked and encouraged (in Basque or in Spanish) to contribute a little money in return for their performance. They picked on whoever hesitated about making a donation and would not mince their words if not compensated but retaliate with ugly verses. Proceeds were destined for candles for the feast of the Virgin and an afternoon meal, and the remainder divided equally among all participants.

Similar petitionary rounds of girls or children are likewise languishing in other latitudes and dates (St Philip’s and St James’ festivities in Balmaseda or Easter songs known as pascuas in Karrantza and Lanestosa, in Bizkaia). Some of them are clearly associated to the Catholic ritual, others combine those beliefs with a naturalistic or pagan context, very much repudiated by the zealous papal Curia.

Josu Larrinaga Zugadi – Sociologist

Translated by Jaione Bilbao – Ethnography Department – Labayru Fundazioa

[1] Translated from: Humbolt, Wilhelm Freicher von. Los Vascos. Apuntaciones sobre un viaje por el País Vasco en primavera del año 1801 [The Basques. Notes taken on a trip to the Basque Country in the spring of 1801]. Donostia: Auñamendi, 1975.

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