The festive mood here has been in full swing since the Christmas lights were promptly turned on, accompanied by street parties in some areas, at nightfall on December 1st. They’re not stingy with the lights either, it seems like most of the city is illuminated, from the tiniest back streets of the Gotico to the wide residential avenues of the Eixample.
The Plaça de Catalunya’s fountains are lit up, its trees multicoloured and it’s now hosting a temporary ice rink. On one corner children gather to watch the Christmas-themed automaton show in the window of the El Corte Ingles department store, itself transformed from an ugly concrete block into a sparkling facade.
So far, so normal…. Until, that is, giant illuminated pasta shells started turning up in random places and we decided to dig deeper and pick the brains of our Catalan friend, Xavi, to see what else was in store for us. We discovered that Christmas here is pretty unique..
As in many countries, the nativity scene plays a big part in the Christmas tradition here, except it often includes a surprise element – the ‘caganer’, or ‘pooper’.
If you look carefully, tucked away in corner of the nativity, you’ll often find the figure of a man wearing traditional Catalan garb and a red floppy hat with his black trousers around his ankles and bare butt hovering above a perfectly coiled turd. He may be looking nonchalant, a pipe hanging from his lips, or surprised and guilty as if you’ve caught him in the act.
These days the traditional caganer is being challenged by celebrity lookalikes and in the Christmas markets you can find Messi kicking a ball while doing his business, the Pope or Merkel caught with their pants down and even the Statue of Liberty complete with a small green deposit.
It seems the caganer is added partly for amusement, partly as tradition and for good luck but either way he’s not intended as the star of the show. Adding the caganer in the forefront would be seen as vulgar so he’s usually hidden away, making it part of the fun to seek him out.
Tió de Nadal (or Caga Tió)
The Tió de Nadal (Christmas Log) continues along a similar theme, being also known as the Caga Tió or ‘shit log’. Despite the name, they’re actually quite cute with painted faces, round stubby noses and sporting the traditional red Catalan hats.
From early December, households take special care of their tió, feeding it every day and keeping it warm under a blanket.
It’s all done with an ulterior motive though because, when Christmas rolls around, the log is expected to poop out some small presents for its family while they sing the traditional Caga Tió song and the kids beat it with sticks (presumably to aid the passage of said presents).
The gifts often include candy, nuts or dried fruit and once all the good presents are pooped out, the tió drops an onion to indicate the end of its bounty.
This is a tradition that’s also shared with other parts of Spain (where it’s known as turrón) and even Italy (torrone), but I had to include it here as it’s a popular candy to both feed to and receive from the Caga Tió and it seems we’re swimming in torró goodness over here! Every bakery, market, supermarket and confectioners is overflowing with them.
Traditionally a rectangle of soft nougat and almonds, the description seems to have been expanded to include any rectangular shaped confection, be it chocolate, marzipan or fudge. If my suitcase has any tiny slivers of space left in it, they will most definitely be sealed up with torró!
The caga tió must serve as an intermediate delaying tactic as the big presents are supposed to come with the Three Kings on January 6th. In anticipation of the arrival of the kings, some families will advance the kings in their nativity scene a little closer to the stable every day and on the eve of their arrival, kids put out bowls of water for the kings’ tired camels.
I can’t deny it’s definitely more biblically accurate and less fantastical than our version with flying reindeer and a fat man who jumps down chimneys.
On King Day, once presents are exchanged (or lumps of coal for those who have been badly behaved!) and after lunch, it’s tradition to eat a ring shaped cake with a figurine and a bean baked into it. If your piece contains the figurine you’re crowned king but if you get the bean, bad luck, you’re paying for lunch!
Oh and, if you were wondering, those giant pasta shells we saw on the street are apparently a reference to Sopa de Galet – meat-filled pasta shells served in broth and traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve. But since I haven’t seen it in any restaurants, I can’t attest to the yumminess of it yet. We are clearly just scraping the surface of Catalan Christmas tradition on this visit!
One last thing… Bon Nadal!