Aberri Eguna: Day of the Basque Homeland

Aberri EgunaA defining element of nationalism is a day set aside to commemorate that nation. For the Basques that day is celebrated in conjunction with Easter Sunday, and it is known as "Aberri Eguna:" the day of the Basque homeland.

Canada Day is celebrated on July 1 to mark the anniversary of the unification of Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia as the Dominion of Canada in 1867. In Mexico September 16 is the national holiday, when Mexican independence from Spanish rule in 1810 is celebrated. In the United States the day of celebration is July 4th commemorating the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Thus a defining element of a nation is setting aside a day. Arana grasped this, and thus formulated "Aberri Eguna." Arana coined the word aberri (fatherland) that consists of herri (country) preceded by a the word aba, a confused invention of Arana's perhaps from the language that Jesus spoke, Aramaic, with the word "Abba" for father). Egun is "day", and the -a is just the Basque article.

Sabino AranaWhereas nationalism is usually the work of a committee (e.g., in the U.S. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, et. al. playing significant roles in the formulation of American nationalism), in the Basque case it was largely the work of just one man: Sabino de Arana-Goiri (1865-1903).  The Basque nation--defined as a people and culture--was not its own nation-state with borders since the southern and northern Basque country had long since been incorporated into Spain and France respectively. To fill that void, Arana who seems to have intuitively understood nation-building, set about to provide the Basques with the missing elements of nationhood.

A prolific writer of over 600 journal articles, Arana was animated by his belief that Basque society was largely unaware of its impending fate of dissolution unless something was done quickly to awaken Basques from their slumber.  Basques had to experience a resurrection or else their ancient culture would soon be extinct.  Thus the link with Easter and its theme of resurrection served a symbolic purpose, but for Arana it was more than just a pragmatic link; a central element of his formulation of Basque nationalism was its fusion with Roman Catholicism which he considered an essential part of Basque identity. Thus when he needed to invent a motto  Arana coined the phrase "Jaungoikoa eta lege zaharrak" (God and the Old Laws) which became the slogan of the PNV-EAJ, or Basque Nationalist Party that he formed. In those early years of the movement, to be Basque meant being Catholic and regaining the fueros or old-laws and privileges of self-government that the southern Basques had lost in the Carlist Wars of the 19th century.  Arana consistently sought to fuse Basque consciousness with Christianity, thus the fusion of Aberri Eguna with Easter Sunday served a two-fold purpose of underscoring the need of a resurrection and a firm connection with Catholicism.

In the last two decades of the nineteenth-century, Basque ethnic sentiment was extremely weak.  Cognizant of this, Arana set as his first objective the revival of the ancient Basque language, Euskara, to serve as a functional medium to reintegrate Basques; he learned it himself as an adult. In addition, he also created the new word Euzkadi [the "s" has now re­placed the "z" spelling in Europe while in the Diaspora the "z" is still often found] which denoted the ethnic nation he envisioned of the seven historic Basque provinces.  He also designed the ikurrina or Basque flag of red, white and green.  According to Arana, the red background symbolized the people, the green 'x' stood for the fueros or ancient laws of self-government, and the white cross symbolized the purity of Christ.  Of course, what made it work was that it resonated with the colors of the Basque countryside with its lush green mountains dotted with whitewashed Basque farmhouses with red tile roofs.

AranaArana's efforts to unify the Basque people did not please the Spanish authorities.  During the last eleven years of his life, he spent more time in jail as a dissident than he did out.  He died in 1903, at the early age of  38 before he accomplished his ambitious goals. During his lifetime there was no real large celebration of the day he had created, nor did the Basques reclaim their ancient fueros and thereby regain a degree of independence from Spanish authorities. Nonetheless he succeeded in creating a modern Basque nationalist movement with an ideology and set of symbols. 

Arana's later-day followers carried on and worked to make the PNV-EAJ nationalist party a voice for the Basques, but their efforts were halted by the Spanish military dictatorship of Miquel Primo de Rivera who in 1923 outlawed the PNV-EAJ party.  Adherents were forced underground, but with the proclamation of the Second Republic that followed this period of repression, Basque nationalists were free once again to work for unity among the Basques.

ikurrinaThe PNV-EAJ sought to encourage Basque unity to send a message to Madrid that the presence of Spanish authorities in Basqueland represented the oppression of a strong and vital people.  Organizers put forth candidates in local and provincial elections, produced newspapers, arranged rallies, encouraged the Basque language and song, as well as folk-dancing (this is when the green sash was substituted for the red sash so that the dancer represented the colors of the Basque flag).  The aim was to forge a proud Basque consciousness among a people who had repeatedly been told by Spanish and French authorities that they were backward and archaic.  In the early 1930s, these efforts culminated with the first Aberri Eguna that was held on Easter Sunday, March 25, 1932.  Sixty-five thousand celebrated together in Bilbao. Since that year, it has always been celebrated except when Spanish authorities prohibited this.

Remaining true to the party's slogan, the festival fused both Basque culture and religion.  Aberri Eguna marked the rebirth of a people who had re-discovered themselves and their destiny. This fusion of Basque consciousness and religion is clearly outlined in the schedule for one of the last celebrations of that decade.  In Bilbao the Easter Sunday of 1937 began with txistulariak processing through the streets before the morning pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Begoña and a communion service.  This was followed by a large outdoor mass in the city's soccer stadium. After mass various dance groups paraded through the streets performing at various times.  Song performances and sporting events were also organized for the day's festivities.

EUZKO ABENDAREN ERESERKA. These are the original lyrics to the national anthem that Sabino Arana composed. It is a testament to the author's word usage that the three words of the title are neologisms he created himself to mean "Anthem of the Basque Ethnicity."

Biscayne Basque (Original)

English translation

Gora ta Gora Euzkadi 
aintza ta aintza 
bere goiko Jaun Onari. 
Areitz bat Bizkaian da 
Zar sendo sindo 
bera ta bere lagia lakua 
Areitz gainean dogu 
gurutza deuna 
beti geure goi buru 
Abestu gora Euzkadi 
aintza ta aintza 
bere goiko Jaun Onari

Up and up Basque Country
glory and glory 
to its Good Lord from above. 
There is an oak tree in Biscay
old, strong, healthy 
it as its law 
On the tree we find 
the holy cross
always on our top 
Sing "Up Basque Country" 
glory and glory 
to its Good Lord from above

To hear this click on Euskadi anthem

These early celebrations of the Basques' national holiday ended with the fall of the Basque provinces to the insurgent rebel forces of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War.  The victors instigated a period of repression and banned most all things Basque.  The repression of the Franco regime, however, failed to extinguish Basque nationalist sentiment.  Beginning in 1964 nationalists began to secretly organize the celebration of Aberri Eguna.  Basque nationalists surprised Spanish authorities with a secret Aberri Eguna celebration in Gernika in 1964.  During the Franco era Spanish authorities labored to halt these "illegal" celebrations of Basque culture. When they discovered the location of an upcoming Aberri Eguna and effectively closed off the city, Basque organizers simply changed the site and carried on.  These celebrations finally became legal in Spain with the death of Franco and the granting of regional autonomy to the Spanish region of the Basque country in the late 1970s.

Modern Basque nationalists have selectively utilized Arana's work. Selective because Arana's work was marked by xenophobia, ethnocentrism and ideas of racial purity.  Sabino Arana shared the outlook of most Europeans of his day, that the essence of a country was defined by its blood or ethnic composition. Arana was troubled by the immigration into Biscay of many workers from central and Western Spain--a group he derisively called "maketos"--that threatened to overwhelm a small territory with little political power resulting in the disappearance of the pure Basque race. Arana's definition of Basqueness was narrowed to racial purity. That however, is not the norm of Basque nationalists today.  Rather for many, the Basque language Euskara remains one of the key defining characteristics of Basqueness, which is clearly understood even by opponents of Basqueness.

Aberri Eguna is only sporadically celebrated in Basque-American communities because of various circumstances including the reality that Basque nationalism was initially a Bizkaian-Basque innovation and Basque-Americans originated from several of the historical provinces with little or no contact with these ideas. Nevertheless, in many ways our local club festivals parallel the same sentiment.  A similar format with a Basque mass to begin the festivities, followed by Basque dancing, singing, sports, etc. is the norm at many Basque-American festivals.  The connection between Catholicism and Basque culture is still very apparent at many of our local gatherings. While things did not completely proceed along the paths blazed by Arana, his larger hope of bringing about a greater shared identity of Basqueness has come about.

While the connection with Aberri Eguna is thin among Basque-Americans, significantly Arana's other invention--the Ikurrina or Basque flag--has been embraced as a universal Basque symbol.  Arana's "Anthem of the Basque Ethnicity" is little heard in Basque-America, but the same objective has been achieved instead with the singing of the defacto Basque national anthem "Gernikako Arbola."  Basques from all over the Basque Country have embraced this song about the oak tree in Gernika--just one town in the Basque Country--and made it their own. 

Aberri Eguna is still celebrated today throughout the Basque country, including the northern provinces that lie in France.  Its significance can vary from group to group, but Aberri Eguna remains a celebration of Basque culture and the recog­nition that the Euskaldunak share a unique heritage that deserves its place amongst the people and cultures of the world.

[SOURCES:  Robert P. Clark, The Basques:  The Franco Years and Beyond  (Reno:  University of Nevada Press, 1979; Stanley G. Payne, Basque Nationalism (Reno:  University of Nevad Press, 1975; Joe V. Eiguren, The Basque History:  Past and Present  (Boise, ID:  Offset Printer, 1972); Larry Trask, "Basque Words and culture"; Eusko Jaurlaritzako Kultura eta Turismo Saila,Eguna  (Vitoria-Gastiez, Araba:  Graficas Santimaria, S.A., 1990); Mark Kurlansky, The Basque History of the World (New York: Penguin Books, 1999).]




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