Context: The informant is my mother, identified as L.M., a woman born, raised, and living in Northern California. Both of her paternal grandparents were of Basque descent. Her paternal grandmother emigrated from the French Pyrenees as a teenager, arriving at Ellis Island speaking only the French and Basque languages, and taking a train across the country to live with relatives in Livermore, California, where she met and married my great grandfather. My mom’s father (my grandfather) was very proud of and identified closely with his Basque roots. One night at a family dinner, I asked my mother if she could describe an event we had attended in Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, the Basque “Festival de Force.” I was also in attendance but was quite young and have only vague images for memories.
Main Piece: “This was about 16 years ago when you were six years old and your sister was 14. We had taken a family trip to the Pyrenees to visit the area where both my father’s mom and dad were from. We spent two nights in a pretty town named St. Jean Pied de Port and one day, you, your sister, your dad, and I took a long walk through the town to explore. Eventually, we found ourselves outside a small outdoor stadium, where lots of local people were buying tickets and going inside. We had no idea what was happening inside, and no one seemed to speak English, but it looked fun and interesting, and we decided to get tickets ourselves and check it out. We took seats in the bleachers and it was quickly obvious that we were very likely the only people there who couldn’t speak Basque or French and were not from the area. So, basically the event was called the “Festival de Force,” or in English a “Strength Festival.” The layout of the stadium was similar to a school stadium with a large open area in the middle and an oval running track around the perimeter. There were about six or eight teams of men, with eight to ten men per team, if I remember correctly, and they competed in several different events. I remember there being a log cutting contest with huge logs and axes; an ox cart lifting and pulling contest, with teams of men racing each other while pulling these large wooden ox carts around the track; another event where the teams of men were in a relay, and they were carrying what looked like two large metal milk jugs that they would then hand over to their teammates in the relay; a race while carrying a large sack of wheat over their shoulders; and also a tug of war contest with a huge rope that was the last event of the match. Each team represented a different town or region, and I think it was an annual event. There was a very loud and enthusiastic crowd with lots of team spirit, and the participants put everything they had into the competition. The winning team was declared at the end, and we filed out of the arena with everyone else and headed back to our hotel. It was one of the most memorable experiences of our trip for me, and I loved the energy, the spontaneity and the randomness of our finding this unexpected event during our vacation.”
Analysis: Basque strength tests have their origin in the farm and forest laborers’ daily work, and for centuries, Basque men from different communities would challenge each other to test their relative prowess at these Basque rural sports. Several strength tests originated with the field and farmworkers, including “Orga Joko,” the cart lift, where contestants lift a 350 kg cart on its drawbar and pull it for at least two and up to five laps of the track; “Lasto Altxari,” the hoisting of a 100 kilo bale of straw on a pulley for as many times as possible in two minutes; the “Sakulari,” racing while carrying 76 kilo sacks of wheat on one’s shoulders, and “Untziketariak,” the relay race with large, heavy, metal jugs of milk. Others come from the traditional woodcutters in the forest, such as the Aizkolaria” axe-cutting of oak tree trunks and the “Segari” sawing beech beams. Finally, the “piece de resistance” is the “Sokatira” tug of war, where two teams of 8 to 10 men, wearing the colors of their villages, oppose each other across a rope weighing about one ton, until in a process of elimination the champion is determined. The first and largest modern Basque Festival de Force began in 1951 in the town of Saint Palais, taking place each year on a Sunday in the middle of August. On this day, approximately 150 strongmen from the six competing villages face off in these spectacular and very old challenges to pull the rope, hoist a bale of straw, raise a cart, spilt wood logs, carry milk jugs, and run a bag of wheat on their shoulders. For both the participants and the spectators, this is a unique experience and one of authenticity rooted deeply in centuries-old Basque traditional games which were common, especially at the time of the wheat harvest. The Basque Festival de Force my mother described took place in the town of St. Jean Pied de Port, approximately 30 kilometers from Saint Palais in mid-July 2005, and although smaller in attendance, it had all of the same elements as the original from Saint Palais.