Having a natural affinity for potty mouthed jokes and rarely being embarrassed about my bodily functions, you can imagine my delight come Christmas season in Barcelona when outdoor markets are festooned with little figurines squatting down and pooping in the background of nativity scenes as well as a tradition that children partake in here where you hit a log and it shits out presents. In between laughs, my Spanish teacher (who is undeniably hilarious and makes learning Spanish incredibly fun) told me that Catalans are obsessed with talking about their poo and it’s a common discussion over Christmas dinner with every family member vying for the loudest voice to tell their story.
The squatting defecating figurine is called El Caganer, which means The Shitter or the Crapper. The tradition of placing one in the background or corner of a nativity scene dates back to the 18th century. The figure is dressed in peasant clothing wearing the traditional red Catalan hat called la barretina, his pants are around his ankles, he is squatting and behind him is a perfectly coiled delightful little turd. The symbolic representation of El Caganer is one of luck and land fertility. As any farmer will tell you, crap makes incredible compost (a woman I collected composted horse dung from several years ago for my vegetable garden admiringly referred to her pile as “Shit Gold’) and vegetables and flowers love this stuff. It was thought that if you included El Caganer in your nativity scene you would have great luck in the production of your farm’s produce. If you’ve seen how well your garden does after adding any type of “Shit Gold” to it, you would be nodding your head in agreement right now. Another, perhaps more recent, depiction of El Caganer is a reminder to everyone that when it come down to it, we are all essentially the same. No one is truly better than anyone else; we all poop. Not only is there the traditional El Caganer for purchase, Christmas markets in Barcelona boast all kinds of celebrities, political figures and movie characters doing their business to fertilize the land.
The other Catalan Christmas tradition is called Tió de Nadal or Caga Tió which means Christmas Log or Shitting Log, respectively. In each of my English classes last week, I had my students explain to me this tradition. The group of three 11-year old boys that I teach were the most animated in explaining to me Caga Tió with sound effects and more or less acting out the process of a log pooping presents. It was my second class teaching them and if that didn’t break the ice, I’m not sure what would. On December 8, which is the celebration of the Feast of Immaculate Conception, families bring out Tió de Nadal and every night leading up to Christmas Eve, children feed the log dried fruit and nuts. They must also cover the log with a blanket to keep it warm. On Christmas Eve it’s time for the Shitting Log to live up to its reputation- all the children beat the log with a stick and sing this song (obviously translated from Catalan to English):
Shit, log! Shit, nougats! Hazelnuts and mató cheese! If you don’t shit well, I’ll hit you with a stick! Shit, log!
Just before they sing this song, they must leave the room to go pray for the tió to poop lots of presents which is when the parents put the gifts under the blanket that is covering the log. The gifts are typically food, nuts or fruit.
This is roughly more or less what I gathered from a little online research and from what my student’s told me. I couldn’t find much online as to what the log represents but one of my students speculated that back in the days of yore, it represented a warm household as after the log received its beating and shat out gifts, it was then burned.
I do not claim to be an expert in any way, shape or form of these two Catalan Christmas traditions. This is simply a compilation of anecdotes told by my students mixed with a little googling. I must say though, this is by far the most interesting of Christmas traditions I’ve ever heard of. You might say it gives a whole new meaning to the term yule log.