A Catalonian Christmas
This post comes a day early to avoid interrupting anyone’s Christmas. Warning: This post has inappropriate language for small children.
The concept of Christmas stems from one religion, and yet mythology and customs from dozens of cultures influence the celebration of this day. Many of the traditions we hold dear in the United States are from these earlier festivities, including holly and mistletoe, yule logs, decorating trees, and carols. For this reason, Puritan New England banned Christmas celebrations. Our modern concept of the holiday did not come about until the mid-1800’s, imported from Victorian England that was itself influenced by Germany. In much of the world, local customs still dominate. One of the strangest traditions we have encountered is from the Catalonia region of Spain.
Catalonia is the northeast corner of Spain, bordering France, with Barcelona as the capital. For centuries, the region has seesawed between suppressive and relatively autonomous control from Spain. Today, it is seeking independence, fiercely embracing its culture and traditions. The rest of Spain sees the region as the ‘oddball’ of the country but is also dependent on its tax revenues to keep the federal government afloat. Barcelona itself is a beautiful city along the Mediterranean coast. One of the founders of modern architecture, Antoni Gaudí, made his mark throughout the city. Spanish-style plazas create unexpected openings filled with markets, street performers, and cafes.
Perhaps the most famous Christmas Market in Barcelona is the Fira de Santa Llúcia, a Spanish market set up in the plaza in front of Catedral de Barcelona. Here you can purchase all your Catalonian Christmas necessities, including Caga Tio and El Caganer.
Walking through the market, we were surprised to see little figurines of people squatting and pooping incorporated into nativity scenes. Most had a red hat and traditional Catalan clothing on, but there were various political and historical figures as well. Everything from President Bush to Gandhi. These are El Caganer, ‘the shitter.’ The Guinness World Record for Largest Caganer went to a 19-foot tall giant displayed at a mall in 2010. No one knows the true origin of this tradition, but it is seen either as a counterpoint to the idealized nativity scene or a symbol of prosperity (feces is a fertilizer). Many Catalan households hide the El Caganer and whoever finds him gets a prize.
Another oddity in the market were little pieces of wood with red felt hats and faces painted on one end. Say hello to Caga Tio. Based on the translation of El Caganer, you will not be surprised to learn that Caga Tio is ‘the shit log.’ At one end of the market stands a giant Caga Tio, half covered in a warm blanket to keep the chilly night air at bay. A queue of eager kids wound through the stalls and terminated at the Tio. They were handed sticks and led up to the log in small groups. In unison they sang a song while beating the Tio with the sticks:
avellanes i mató,
hazelnuts and mató cheese,
si no cagues bé,
if you don't shit well,
et daré un cop de bastó!
I'll hit you with a stick!
This delightful Caga Tio tradition requires more work. Typically, the family decorates the Tio together on December 8th. The kids need to keep it warm and happy until Christmas Eve. They cover it with a blanket, keep it close to the fire or furnace, and feed it every day (usually turrón). If they have done a good job, the Tio will be ‘full’ on Christmas Eve, and hitting it with sticks is supposed to force the log to defecate. An adult will reach under the blanket and pull out the poop, which miraculously turns into candy for the kids. You can think of it like stocking stuffers, only a little more violent.
With that, I need to get back to my tradition of making cinnamon buns for Christmas brunch. If you have an interesting or unusual Christmas tradition, I would love to hear about it below in the comments section (click on the orange “Leave a Comment” link)! Thank you for your support and Merry Christmas!
Follow directions to the Catedral de Barcelona. GPS Coordinates: 41.384850, 2.17610