Unusual characters who turn up at Christmas

A drawing showing the Basque character El Olenzero.
A drawing showing the Basque character El Olenzero.
  • Tientapanza in Écija, Alpalpador in Galicia and Olentzero in the Basque Country are all lesser-known figures who form part of local festive traditions in parts of Spain

The Christmas season is long and special in Spain. It starts with the most outstanding lottery in Europe on 22 December, continues with a family dinner on Christmas Eve and finishes in the company of the Three Kings, whose visit is always expected on 5 January.

Children across the country are used to seeing Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar in the streets and Father Christmas puts in appearances throughout December. However, there is another little-known Christmas character in Andalucía. His name is Tientapanza and he appears in the town of Écija just after Christmas.

According to the local tradition, during the Christmas holidays, the Three Wise Men send an emissary to Écija to check if the children in the town have eaten well. That's why parents and grandparents of Écija encourage the youngest members of the household to eat everything on the plate by saying, "Tientapanza will come to touch the tummies of every child to determine whether or not they are good eaters." If the children are good eaters, then they will be able to receive gifts from the Three Kings when they arrive.

The figure known as Tientapanza, or even Titopanza, is actually related to the Galician Apalpador or Apalpa-Barrigas, a coalman from the mountains. It is believed that this figure lives in the rural areas of Lugo and Ourense. He is scruffy and wears a beret. He frequently smokes a pipe, and a donkey called Lor sometimes helps him carry gifts, to be delivered after he has established whether the children have been eating properly.

A beret is also worn by another Christmas character from Navarre and the Basque Country - Olentzero. Historians think that Tientapanza, Apalpador and Olentzero are adaptations of a pre-Roman myth; and the element of touching children's tummies is based on a Lusitanian divinatory custom.

Moreover, the Basque-Navarre character Olentzero is associated with the winter solstice as well as the Roman Saturnalia. Christianity adapted these ancient customs and attached them to the birth of Jesus Christ. In comparison to his Galician and Andalusian colleagues, Olentzero himself delivers gifts every 25 December.

There are many versions of how the tradition of Tientapanza was born in Écija. It is thought that the Galician repopulators brought the tradition to the south after the Christian conquest of the area in the Medieval Period.

Nowadays Tientapanza enters the town in the company of giants from fairy tales. He looks like a mixture of royal page and Santa Claus. This portly white-bearded gentleman is dressed in a white shirt and a blue vest, brown trousers and grey boots, with a black cap decorated with a big feather on his head and a red cape.

Tientapanza rides a separate float sitting on a high throne and surrounded by his courtiers who throw sweets, gifts and balloons in the air and into the crowds. The 4.2m-tall King and Queen also walk around, accompanied by a marching band.

It is interesting, that all aforementioned Christmas characters were forbidden during Franco's dictatorship because they were considered as an adaptation of a regionalist or nationalist nature. However, they were eventually revived.

The Écija Tientapanza tradition was recovered in 2004 by a cultural association formed by residents of the El Carmen neighbourhood, who, each year, choose its neighbour to embody the peculiar Christmas character.

Since then the traditional parade has been promoted to attract not only locals but tourists as well to show the peculiarities of Andalucía.

Covid-19 has meant that this year's parade has been cancelled, but the association promises that Tientapanza will be back next year.