Catalonia has many unique traditions you won’t find anywhere else: Castellers, Correfocs and Calçotadas to name a few. But by far, the most bizarre and original have to be its scatalogical Christmas traditions, featuring logs that poop presents and defecation in the nativity scene.
Let’s start with the Pooping Log…Caga Tió:
In most countries it’s Santa Claus and his reindeer who bring you presents on Christmas Eve.
In Catalonia it’s the equally fantastical Caga Tió – basically a log with little wooden legs and an overly eager smiley face, usually topped off with a little red felt hat (a barretina).
On the 8th of December (The Day of the Immaculate Conception, usually considered the first acceptable day to put up Christmas decorations and start festivities), children are commissioned to “feed” the log with turrón and orange peels. Every week Caga Tio gets fatter, as the family replaces him with similar logs of increasing sizes (while the kids are fast asleep).
The children aren’t just caring for this log’s insatiable appetite out of the goodness of their hearts. Oh no. The idea is that once he’s been fed well for a couple of weeks, he’ll miraculously excrete gifts from his non-existent bottom, when persuaded by vigorous beatings with a stick. Traditionally these gifts are sweets and small toys, the bigger presents being reserved for King’s Day on the 6th of January, (usually the main day for giving holiday gifts, but we’ll come to that another time).
In any case, for all Catalan families with children, the evening of December 24, la Nochebuena, plays out more or less like this:
Excited children have been feeding Caga Tió for weeks, and they can finally reap the rewards of their hard work. However, for some unknown reason their little log friend needs some persuading to give up his goodies. Maybe he’s constipated from his high-sugar, low-fibre diet? Perhaps he wants to seek revenge on the little devils fattening him up like a foie gras goose? Whatever the reason, he needs some coercion to bring forth the succulent pressies. This is where the blunt-force corporeal violence comes in.
While the children leave the room to go and wet their sticks, (again, who knows why), the parents quickly hide all the sweeties under a blanket which has been keeping the log nice and cosy all this time. When the children come back, the torture ritual can begin with a menacing chant. Although there are many variations, with each family choosing their favourite, the most popular goes like this:
|Catalan original||Rough Translation into English|
|Caga tió!||Poop log!|
|Caga torró,||Poop turrón,|
|avellanes i mató.||hazelnuts and fresh cheese.|
|Si no cagues bé||If you don’t poop well,|
|et daré un cop de bastó.||I’ll hit you with a stick,|
Following the threats of violence, the goodies are immediately extorted by savagely beating the defenceless log with a stick. Then the blanket is lifted up to reveal the hard-won sweets, much to the delight of the small terrorists.
Well, that’s if you’ve been good. What if you’ve been naughty all year? Caga Tió might poop out a herring, a piece of coal, an onion or a clove of garlic. So make sure you’re good boys and girls!
Check out the video below if you want to see these acts of violence in action. Warning: you might see some upsetting images of arboreal cruelty:
I’m not sure what this is really teaching kids. But in any case, children evidently love it and the curious tradition of Caga Tió won’t be stopping anytime soon.
Not content with just one defecating Christmas character, the Catalans have a second … the Caganers!
Literally “poopers”, these figurines depict a man with his trousers around his ankles and his bare bum on display squatting down to do his business, complete with said turd meticulously sculpted to protrude from said behind and collecting in a pile at the base. If that wasn’t odd enough, they’re hidden in nativity scenes in a sort of surreal scatological Where’s Wally? set up.
Ok, that’s a lot to take in. Let’s start with the nativity scenes first – often the most important Christmas decorations in Spanish homes. Unlike in the UK and many other countries where the nativity shows baby Jesus along with Mary, the three wise men and a few donkeys in the stable, in Spain, as well as in most of Italy and Southern France, the nativity scenes are elaborate installations encompassing the whole city of Bethlehem. The pesebre could include anyone from the baker, washer women, farmers in the fields, the midwife looking over a group of frolicking children, you name it. This diminutive village usually also comes complete with fresh bark and twigs collected from the forest as well as a working miniature watermill and tiny LEDs for candles inside hand-crafted houses! It seems perhaps fitting then that these embellished displays would include even the lowliest characters of society, doing trivial things; like taking a dump.
Obviously, some people can get offended by the depiction of a defecating peasant in the presence of baby Jesus. This was something my Catalan teacher friend found out when she explained this tradition to her students in Ireland and was subsequently met with shocked stares of disgust and embarrassed faces all round. However, the tradition is tolerated by the Catholic church in areas where it is practised, which aside from Catalonia includes other areas of Spain such as Murcia and Valencia as well as Andorra, Portugal and southern Italy.
But why have a pooper at all? The caganer has been around in Catalonia since the 18th century and since then there have been many theories about its meaning. The most popular being that, since the caganer is fertilising the soil with his number two, it brings prosperity and good luck in the new year, especially for farmers. Others think it’s a subversive symbol to not-so-discreetly tell the Catholic church what was (is) thought of them by the common folk. Alternatively, maybe a pesebre-maker decided to pull a prank one year, leading to retaliation by another, which soon turned into a tradition. Or maybe the caganer is just a reminder to stay down-to-earth, have a little fun, and not take things too seriously, even (especially?) where religion is concerned.
The traditional caganer figurine is a peasant wearing traditional Catalan attire: white shirt, black trousers, belt, espadrilles and barretina, but nowadays there is a wide range of caganers to choose from. In recent years a urinating figure (a “Pixaner”) has also appeared, but they aren’t nearly as popular as the good old-fashioned poopers. New figures are created every year depicting famous people such as Messi, Donald Trump and The Queen to name just a few. No doubt there’ll be a fair few Boris Johnsons this year! Many people collect them and there’s even an association dedicated to them called Els Amics del Caganer (Friends of the Caganer) which produces a regular newsletter, “El Caganófil”.
You can buy them year round in many souvenir shops but the most authentic place to buy them is directly in front of Santa Eulalia Cathedral at Barcelona’s oldest Christmas market – La Fira de Santa Llúcia. It’s very different compared to the famous Christmas markets in Germany, but it’s a great way to get into the Christmas spirit in Barcelona (and to stock up on your fresh moss inlays for your nativity scene). Alternatively, you can also buy your pooping figurines at www.caganers.com. Now that really takes “crappy souvenirs” to a whole new level.
It wouldn’t be a Catalan Christmas without the caganer. In fact, when he was omitted from Barcelona’s nativity scene in 2005, it provoked public outcry! Apparently the council had just passed a law making public urination and defecation illegal, so the caganer would be setting a bad example. The Catalans weren’t convinced and saw it as an attack on their traditions. Following the campaign Salvem el caganer (Save the Caganer) and widespread media criticism, the chipper crapper was restored to his place of glory in 2006. ¡Viva el caganer!
So there you have it, forget the singing Christmas tree and creepy Santa dolls this year. Get a crapping peasant figurine and a pooping log piñata instead. I’ll leave you with one last feculent fancy from the land of the poop obsessed good eaters and strong shitters: “menja bé, caga fort i no tinguis por a la mort!”.
Sending you winter sunshine and positivity from Barcelona!
What do you think about these curious Catalan Christmas traditions? What strange Christmas traditions from other countries do you know? I would love to find out in the comments section below!