Postcard from... Lazkao


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The Independent Online

Ever since 1652, on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the Cistercian nuns of Lazkao, a rural town in the Basque Country's Gipuzkoa region, have staged a re-enactment of the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus from King Herod's soldiers.

But since the late 1980s, when neighbours' associations started providing many of the show's two- and four-legged "extras", the region's donkeys – the animals on which the Bible's First Family are supposed to have fled to Egypt – have regularly stolen the show, to the point where the re-enactment is now known as Astotxo Eguna (Donkey Day).

One high point of last Sunday's Astotxo Eguna came when the local donkey-conservation association held its annual "Best Donkey of Gipuzkoa" competition. This year, with 55 donkeys crowding into Lazkao's central square, the winners for the "most beautiful female" and "most elegant male" category respectively were Benita and Urtain, whose proud owners each received a first prize of €300 – and a cowbell.

Later in the day, the Flight into Egypt from Herod's soldiers, complete with Mary carrying Jesus on a donkey, was re-enacted by 200 adults and children. The Astotxo Eguna then concluded with a trade in the nuns' sale of their famous home-made (and previously blessed) holy wafers.

But as local newspaper Noticias de Gipuzkoa put it, Sunday's main source of veneration was "the donkey, even if [Pope] Benedict XVI" – who recently claimed there were no animals at the Nativity – "wants them out of the picture". In Lazkao at least, that may well be no easy task.