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Monday
Jan072013

Have a Happy Crappy Christmas Catalonia-Style

by Elyn Aviva

 

Bon Nadal and Feliç Any Nou! That’s Catalan for Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. 

It’s the holiday season in my home town, Girona, Catalonia, and things aren’t quite what you might expect. Yes, there are the familiar ho-ho-ho Santa Claus figures dangling from buildings, and three-foot-high Christmas trees with matching pink and purple ribbon decorations are lined up outside stores on the main shopping streets.

There are brilliant-colored lights strung across the avenues, and a glittering conical abstraction of a Christmas tree pulses on and off in the Plaza de Catalunya. Christmas carols (sometimes in English) echo through the halls, the beauty salons, and the restaurants, and carolers emote as they stroll down the pedestrian Rambla, songbooks in hand. Flame-red poinsettias are for sale in the market, and school-club fundraisers hawk chocolate bars and handmade knickknacks. And there’s the cheery Firanadal (Christmas Fair) offering artisanal goods, felt slippers, jewelry, plastic toys, and boxwood spoons.

Yes, all of this is vaguely familiar, even if gigantes (giant dancing king and queen figures), a marathon Nativity play (Els Pastorets), xuixus (pronounced “choochoos”: sugar dusted, cream-filled pastry rolls), and turrón (a kind of nougat) aren’t usual Christmas fare.


But you really know you’re in a foreign land when you seen the rows of squatting miniature figures—including SpongeBob SquarePants, flamenco dancers, Obama, Barça soccer star Messi, Queen Elizabeth II, and Death—their pants pulled down, a brown plop of poop deposited behind them, for sale for inclusion in Nativity scenes. Correction: the plop of poop behind Death is white, not brown. 


These are the famous Caganers, a peculiar and unique feature of Catalan Nadal. In 2005, the Barcelona City Council forbade the inclusion of the Caganer in the city-sponsored Nativity scene, claiming a recent by-law made public defecation and urination illegal. The public outcry was enormous; people saw this as an attack on Catalan traditions. So in 2006 the crapping Caganer was restored to its place of honor. In 2010, a 19-foot-tall defecating giant graced the Maremagnum Shopping Center in Barcelona, Spain. It won the Guinness World Record for largest Caganer. One has to wonder how much competition there was.


The origin of Caganers is unknown, but they are recorded as a vital part of the Nativity scenes in Catalonia by the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. Although most popular in Catalonia and neighboring areas where Catalan culture is strong (Andorra, Valencia, Northern Catalonia—i.e., southern France), they also appear in Murcia, in southern Spain; in Portugal; and in Naples, in southern Italy. Whether enthusiastic Catalans brought them there or they spread by contagion is unknown. They even have their own association, The Friends of the Caganer (http://www.caganer.com).

At any rate, in Catalonia, the Pessebre (Catalan for Nativity scene) is a pastoral scenario based around a traditional Catalan farmhouse. It usually includes the infant Jesus in the manger, Mary and Joseph, the three Wise Men (more on them later), shepherds, angels, women at daily tasks (washing clothes, spinning), water wheels, wells, etc. And the Caganer, discreetly tucked away but eagerly sought for.

Why have a figure excreting waste in a holy Nativity scene? The answer is anybody’s guess, and many people have. Suggestions include: humor; a funny spectacle for children; the physiological equality of all people; symbolically fertilizing the earth, which was important in rural culture, and thus ensuring the health and happiness of the community; reinforcing the idea that the infant Jesus is God in human form; the insertion of the mischievous “other” in the midst of a holy scene as “leavening”; and so on.

Nor are the Caganers the only indication that something unusual is going on in the minds and hearts and customs of Catalans. They also have the intriguing habit of flogging a log (Tió). Catalan children flog the Tió de Nadal or Caga Tió (“shit log”) and sing a song, and the flogged log “craps” candy and nuts in response. Unless, of course, the Tió is chocolate, in which case it is struck much more gently. The end result (pardon the pun) is still the same: gifts falling from an unseen orifice into waiting hands.

The tradition in Catalonia—and in neighboring Catalan-influenced areas like Occitania in France and Aragon in Spain—is that beginning on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Tió appears in the dining room. “He” is a hollow log “standing” on little log legs, painted with a smiling face, and wearing a red cap, similar to the traditional Catalan barretina. He must be fed and cared for daily by the children in the family, who cover him with a cloth or blanket at night to keep him warm. Apparently this teaches the children something (I’m not sure what) about responsibility. In some families the initial Tió is tiny but, if he is well fed, he gradually grows into a much larger Tió, presumably capable of crapping bigger gifts. 

If the children do a good job of caretaking, on Christmas Eve the Tió is supposed to give back to them. They beat it with sticks and sing a version of the following catchy ditty in Catalan:

Shit log,
shit turrón (nougat),
hazelnuts and cottage cheese,
if you don’t shit well,
I’ll hit you with a stick,
shit log!

 

A different version goes,

Shit log,
log of Christmas,
don't shit herrings,
which are too salty,
shit nougats (turrón)
which are much better!

After an initial gentle beating, by the end the children are flogging the log more fiercely and chanting, “Caga Tió!” At the climax, someone reaches under the cloth or blanket and finds nuts, turrón, candies, and perhaps dried figs deposited at the rear end of the log. 

The original Tió was a rough, natural log, perhaps 12” long, and it would be placed in the fireplace hearth and commanded to “shit.” In recent years, the Tió has been “prettified” or “humanized,” decorated with an idiotic face and pencil-thin legs. And now, since there are few fireplace hearths, he has lost his association with that source of heat and light.

Let’s take a deep breath and contemplate these peculiar activities. Maybe more is going on than reveling in bodily functions. Perhaps the same impulse connects the Caganer and the Tió: the importance of fertility, expressed by human figures whose “crap” fertilizes the fields and by a part of nature (a tree trunk) that “craps” human food.

Lest you think the entire Catalan Christmas season revolves around excrement, I should mention the Cavalcada de Reis (The Horseback Procession of The Magi), which occurs on January 5, the day before Epiphany/Twelfth Night. The Three Kings and numerous attendants (including jugglers, fire-eaters, scribes, bakers, cooks, and bearers of gifts) parade through the streets, tossing gifts and candy to the people who line the sidewalks. Then the Three Kings return to their encampment on the hillside above the medieval city walls. At home, parents traditionally have given important gifts on this day rather than on Christmas. The Procession of the Three Kings is, however, a Catholic European tradition, not a uniquely Catalan one like the crapping log and the Caganer.

So if you happen to hear someone talking about “having a crappy Christmas,” just smile and wish them “Bon Nadal.”

 

 

Elyn Aviva is a transformational traveler, writer, and fiber artist. Her blog is www.powerfulplaces.info. Currently living in Girona (Catalonia), Spain, she is fascinated by pilgrimage and sacred sites. Her PhD in anthropology was on the modern Camino de Santiago in Spain. Aviva is author of a number of articles, books, and novels on pilgrimage and sacred sites. She is co-author with her husband, Gary White, of the series “Powerful Places Guidebooks.” The most recent one is Powerful Places in Wales. To learn more about these publications, go to www.powerfulplaces.com and www.pilgrimsprocess.com. To learn about Elyn’s fiber art, go to www.fiberalchemy.com.

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Reader Comments (22)

Speechless....

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMaureen Magee

Loved it! I love Catalan, have been there many times when my kids were tiny. Find it an intruiging piece of earth and the culture is fascinating. I have not been there in winter so loved this insight. I have danced the Sardanas a few times and that was awesome and difficult!

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkarin schluter lonegren

Elyn, This is the oddest Christmas story I've ever encountered! I've often thought that growing up in the U.S., it was metaphorical that we didn't have to "deal with our own shit" (due to modern plumbing), and bodily functions were considered "dirty" and uncouth to mention... much less glorify in a nativity. Here in Mexico, we have live nativities where animals do sometimes crap, but no one dares mention that, and colorful piñatas that are beaten for candy, but again without any association with excretion. Thank you for shining a new light on this crappy tradition and providing me a hearty laugh! I'm still hoping to see you in Girona and look forward to adding a search for Caganers to my list of "must do's".

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAysha Griffin

Amazing the traditions different cultures have surrounding Christmas. This one is very original and your article is fascinating look into Catalan Christmas season! Thanks Elyn!

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Jarldane

Most interesting!!

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElla

Oh, MY. Any wonder humanity porgesss so slowly!! May these traditions die a really crappy death.

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdahnya cobb-levison

I wonder if the Caganers have a pre-christian origin "... his fertile depositions the soil of the crib will became rich and productive for the coming year ... he would bring good health and calm to the body and the soul" (extract from Caganer.com)

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Fox

Love it! Some cultures are so human! I wonder if we have some equally peculiar traditions which we take for granted but make others scratch their heads. Although it originates in Mexico, the pinata comes to mind, especially when it is in the shape of Santa or an Angel. Asking children to beat and break "Santa" for the candy inside seems a bit barbaric. Thanks for the article.

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLydia Banales

Interesting article. It reminds for a "coyote" effect - of having something imperfect or ordinary to ground to balance things out, like the small dark deity shrines in Tibetan monasteries to balance out the energies of dark and light to bring wholeness...

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

Thanks for all your comments! Yes, these customs certainly seem odd to many of us--but they do persist. National Catalan pride in tradition, smart marketing mavens, old habits--and maybe really something more. The "coded" ("encoded"?) connection to nature and natural functions. Fertility and fertilizer. Northern European countries have the Yule Log, which seems somewhat related to the Tío, at least in form. Thanks, Anne, for the "coyote" suggestion. Dark and light together make the day. Other suggestions? Any anthropologists or folklorists care to make suggestions?
And as Lydia suggests--what customs do WE (in general, Americans) have that would seem equally unusual?

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElyn Aviva

Excellent vision of an tradition misunderstood outside our country. Generation after generation, all children catalans have made ​​"shit" a log of wood on the floor after feed him every day, in a primitive ritual preChristian. And at the end, when all the gifts have been completed, the trunk "shit" a piece of coal.

And congratulations the authors. In a few years have understood our nation better than the spaniards arrived decades. New catalans like you who make our country grow in the way of their national liberation, already so close.

Moltes gràcies.

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoaquim Ribas

Thank you Joaquim! We try to understand and respect Catalunya on its own terms.

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElyn Aviva

As I remember from my Christmases with in-laws and their family, the Tió provided the extra foodstuffs and candies for the Christmas meal on December 24th and each contribution only arrived after the children had left the room to recite a 'Pare Nostre' (Our Father) watched over by an adult who checked that they didn´t cheat. When there was no more to be 'crapped' the Tió produced a piece of coal and children were told to behave otherwise all they would get would be the coal.My strict English upbringing found it all rather shocking. As was the 'Caganer' even though, thinking logically, in a very rural, close to the earth society where many houses had no indoor bathrooms and often not even one outdoors, and with people working in the field all the daylight hours a crapping person was probably a very common sight just as much as a mule, a chicken or some sheep and so, part of the scene. Thanks Elyn..

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnn Coveney

Thanks Anne! One Catalan friend described children going into another room and singing Christmas carols--and if the Tió hadn't "crapped" anything, they would go back into the other room and sing with more volume or sincerity. So I guess there are local family variants on the custom. I can just imagine (well, almost) the shock you must have experienced! But as you say, logically, in a rural, close to the earth society, it wouldn't have been that shocking to the Catalans. But most people don't institute a custom around it, so it remains for me very intriguing.

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElyn Aviva

A wonderful piece of ... writing! Who knew?

Thanks very much.

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJim Robinson

Thanks for this mind-blowing article, which answers with relief the age-old question, "Where did those who attended the Nativity crap?" leaving behind only the question of why other countries' Nativity scenes present only the cleaned-up phase of the Nativity-goers experience This gives you a further, intriguing investigation goal, Elyn! You can ask your question far and wide in any season as you visit your many countries, rooting out cultural priggishness to show itself.

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commentersusan robinson

Uh Susan... You leave me speechless!

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElyn Aviva

There is also a Caganer in an Irish nativity since a few years, so they are slowly taken over the world;-)

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVictor Reijs

And a wonderful nativity (and Caganer) it is, too! Wish I could postd the photo Victor sent to me.

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElyn Aviva

Hey Elyn thanks for raising our cloacal consciousness. When I taught the Barcelona Course for the University which usually began before Reyes, Twelfth night, I pointed up to students this particular unabashedness among Catalans as the most pleasant of all forms of toilet training-- a much neglected difficulty of the early years. My favorite Caganers over the years have been Charles de Gaulle, Michael Jordan and most recently (last four years) our noble President dressed to the nines while he neatly and with great suppleness and aplomb lowers his pants for a discrete abomination! This custom will be a great loss to the rest of Spain if the Catalans succeed in seceding. papajim

January 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPapajim

I always enjoy your insights Elyn.I have travel and lived in Barcelona for many,many years,but never spent a Christmas there....now I now it can be a bit crappy..Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experiences.

January 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFrancisco Allwood

Hi PapaJim and Francisco! Great to hear from each of you, with your different insights. Hope we can spend a crappy Christmas together in Barcelona!
Best,
Elyn

January 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElyn Aviva

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