Christmastime is, without a shadow of a doubt, my absolute favourite time of year. Despite the fact that Santa-themed decorations start to slowly creep into shop displays around the beginning of November and clash with the odd pumpkin wreath and witch’s hat leftover from Halloween, as soon as December 1st rolls around, I start mulling over the endless whys and wherefores as I binge-watch Home Alone 2. How about we go somewhere tropical for Christmas? Are we even bothering with brussel sprouts this year? Can you die from edible glitter poisoning?
Although I have never spent Christmas Day anywhere other than at home with my family in the U.K., I have had the privilege of experiencing the run-up to the big day in several countries. In 2013 I was in Valencia, then Lisbon in 2014, and now, Catalonia. Having recently relocated to Barcelona, my husband and I have been able to witness first-hand how Catalans typically celebrate the birth of Jesus and, let me tell you, it’s…interesting.
We decided to pay a visit to the Christmas Markets in Gòtic yesterday, because after a long day of housework and other menial acts of adult responsibility, we felt that we deserved an evening of chocolate-covered-anything and glühwein a-plenty.
The stalls themselves were arranged in a row formation in front of Gòtic Cathedral and strongly illuminated by a set of decorative lights bright enough to rival the floodlights at Wembley. However, it didn’t take us long to discover that this particular Christmas Market didn’t actually serve any food at all. Not a single morsel to replenish our waning energy levels as we navigated the rows of artisanal jewellery, handmade crafts and defecating action figures.
We accidentally entered through the back where all the police were congregated and people were exiting. Nudging our way through oncoming people traffic like salmon swimming upstream, we ogled delicate macramé jewellery, household objects made solely from recycled newspaper and inspirational quotes watercoloured onto canvases. Each of the initial chalets was pretty tiny and complete with a hard working craftsman or woman nestled snugly behind an enticing display of their creations. It became apparent that this half of the Market was for buying gifts and the other half was for acquiring necessities like Christmas lights and shitting logs. More on that in a moment.
I must say, as much as I enjoy window shopping, I do prefer it when the person who has spent three quarters of the last calendar month turning a pile of old sweetie wrappers into a glasses case isn’t watching me with wide eyes. It might be my people-pleasing tendencies, or the fact that I’m just a melt, but I always feel a stab of guilt when I spend time fawning over things I don’t end up buying, especially when the person who made it with all the love in their heart is not-so-secretly hoping I change my mind.
As we emerged into the central sort-of-crossroads portion of the market, the overall vibe of the place underwent a rather dramatic alteration. Gone was the tranquility and placidity that comes with hand-sculpted incense burners and the tame whiff of eucalyptus. The leisurely pace with which people were browsing the craft section was replaced by the throbbing commotion of small dogs wearing Fair isle jumpers and yapping at singing Christmas trees, and children jumping in and out of pushchairs, chasing each other with flashing sticks. Older ladies gathered in floor-length fur coats and chatted amid clouds of menthol cigarette smoke, vendors shouted, announcing that their balding Christmas tree was the best quality one around and that if you bought Joseph and Mary, you’d get Jesus half-price.
It felt like we’d fallen down the rabbit hole and ended up in a Christmas-themed Wonderland.
Everything reeked of Christmas. Not unusual for a Christmas Market, however, this was a lot. If you’re still lukewarm to the idea of white-bearded men falling down your chimney and feel a migraine coming on at the sound of “Away in a Manger”, then it might not be your cup of tea. It was dizzying. Kind of like Disneyland, where even the potholes in the road are shaped like Mickey Mouse.
Death by Christmas. Albeit a sweet one. And not only that, but Catalan Christmas, which I am now about to inform you is a completely different entity to the norm. Why? Because of Catalonia’s very unusual obsession with…poo.
Yes, you read correctly, poo. Faeces. Excrement. Pick your preferred moniker.
You couldn’t turn your head without coming face-to-arse with someone answering a call to nature in figurine form. Far be it from me to imagine the rich and famous relieving themselves, but after a visit to chalet #127, I have now retained the vivid imagery of Her Majesty The Queen assuming position and quite literally crowning and, yes, it is somewhat scarring.
So what’s the significance?
Well, Catalonia has two main turd-related characters featuring in their yearly Yuletide festivities.
Firstly, El Caganer (lit. The Shitter) who is a little man in traditional Catalan dress, dropping his trousers and doing the very thing that got him his name in the first place. It is customary for Catalans to hide one of these among the members of a classic Nativity set and let children guess where he is. Like Where’s Wally, but only worse. Dating back to the Baroque Period of the 18th Century, Caganer is a sign of good fortune, apparently. His pooing symbolises fertilisation of the land and ensuring a good harvest for the following year.
Next, El Cagatió (lit. Shit Log) – a small log figure with wooden legs and a smiling face painted on the front end. If you haven’t guessed by now, “caga” comes from the verb cagar, which means “to shit.” And yes, it is equally as vulgar in Spanish as it is in English. Tió, means “log” in Catalan and is definitely not to be confused with “tio” which is “uncle” in Spanish.
Cagatió is, in many ways, the traditional Catalan equivalent to Santa Claus. Children cover the lower half of the log with a blanket on December 8th so that he doesn’t catch a cold and “feed” it every night until the 24th, when after all that TLC he should’ve…left them presents, so to speak. Small items such as nuts and sweets and dried fruit.
They gather round him on Christmas Eve and beat the bejeesus out of it while chanting the following song:
“Caga tió, caga torró, avellanes i mató, si no cagues bé et daré un cop de bastó. Caga tió!”
In other words, “Shit, log, shit out turrón (nougat), hazlenuts and Mató (cheese). If you don’t shit properly, I’ll beat you with a stick so shit, log!”
Oh, the little cherubs.
I’ve always been fascinated by how different cultures celebrate their religious holidays. Despite not coming from a particularly devout family, we have always honoured the tradition of Christmas and what it signifies.
So even though we won’t be battering tree trunks or hiding mini Catalan men mid-poo amongst ox and ass and goodness knows what else, we will be gathering the family together and commemorating another joyful Christmastime with the people we love the most.
From my family to yours,
What are some traditional Christmas traditions in your native country? Let me know!