Following up on my earlier post on the formidable Krampus, the rather Halloween-ish Alpine Christmas tradition I have had the opportunity to witness firsthand while living and studying in Germany, I am here to report on yet another strange and even creepy Christmas tradition from my current location in Barcelona. I was out exploring the city recently and happened to run into a Christmas market that very much resembled those that take over German city squares throughout the country this time of year. I love German Christmas markets–there is something just absolutely cozy about bundling up in four layers of shirts and sweaters, meandering through all the booths, admiring the handmade arts and crafts, with Lebkuchen (gingerbread) in one hand and Glühwein (hot mulled wine) in the other. The atmosphere is even better when the streets have been slightly dusted with snow. So while the snow was missing, I was delighted to come upon a Christmas market in Barcelona. However, I was not in the slightest prepared for what I found there.
As I began wandering through the booths (and desperately hoping for something resembling Glühwein), I began to notice something that struck me as incredibly strange. Nearly every booth was stocked with crudely decorated wood logs of various sizes. The logs were all adorned with a painted smiling face on one end and a blanket covering the other end, and each had four small “legs” to prop it up. Some of the logs were even sporting Santa hats. While the scene was rather odd, I assumed that this must simply be a popular Spanish Christmas decoration, similar to the cheesy plastic reindeer many Americans put in their yards or on their roofs.
But then things got weird. One of the booths had a large sign that read “Caga Tío” above said logs, and since my Spanish is not that good and my Catalan even worse, I immediately whipped out my smartphone and opened up my Spanish-Catalan-English translation app. These applications are always pretty rudimentary even with today’s technology, so I was pretty sure the translation was bad when it came back as, “shitty uncle.” Yes, I shit you not, that was not a typo, that’s literally what the dictionary said. Utterly confused, I asked as politely as possible at the booth if the saleswoman spoke English, which she did not, but she directed me to someone who did (sort of). Assuming still that the translation was a simple case of malaprop, I tentatively asked the young man if he could explain the embellished logs for me. He got a rather mischievous grin on his face, not unlike the infamous Cheshire cat that overtakes the Grinch’s glower right before he attempts to steal Christmas. He told me that in Catalonia, families bring a small log home, named Caga Tío, starting in early December, and every night the family feeds it oranges, nuts, wine, or leftovers like a begging dog. The log slowly becomes bigger as it eats more and more (hence the various sizes). Then finally on Christmas day, similar to America’s elusive Mr. Claus, Caga Tío is expected to produce presents for the good children and something undesirable for the naughty children (in this case, the consolation prize for those on the naughty list is herring, fitting for a coastal country, I suppose). But unlike St. Nick, Caga Tío needs a little convincing. In fact, he needs A LOT of convincing. Apparently, children take a small branch and literally beat the presents out of the log, all the while singing a Catalan Christmas Carol, the lyrics of which demand that the log shit presents. Again, this is not a typo, the children beat the shit out of the log, and the metaphorical excrement are small presents. If you think I’m just pulling your leg, check out this video of the tradition in action (the lyrics and the English translation can be found here):
When the song is over, the children lift up the blanket to reveal their presents, or their herring as the case may be. Afterwards, the log is throw into the fireplace, if the family has one.
At this point, I really wasn’t sure if the man was telling me the truth or if he was having some fun at the expense of a naïve foreigner. Being somewhat speechless, he pulled out his phone and brought up a video similar to the one above. He was not shitting me. This is a real and time-honored Catalan Christmas tradition. I can only imagine what my face must have looked like, and sensing my dismay, the Cheshire cat returned as he took me by the hand and said, “there’s more!”
He brought me to another booth where dozens of little figurines were on display. “We have, umm, we have…,” he pauses as he struggles for the English word and consults his colleague, “we have your mayor…from Alaska!” I struggled to make some sort of logical connection between the excreting timber and Alaska, when suddenly I looked down and in my hand the man had placed a figurine of Sarah Palin in a rather, well, compromising position. I’ll let the picture do the talking.
Now before you assume that this is some sort of unfair swipe at the former governor manufactured by a left-wing socialist waging a war on Christmas, apparently caganers (“crappers”) draw no partisan or otherwise polite distinctions. Indeed, a little bit of internet research revealed Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth, Fidel Castro, John Lennon, Elvis Presley, and even the Pope, all popping a squat with their butts in the breeze. I noticed a miniature football pitch on display wherein every current player of Catalonia’s beloved FC Barcelona were giving new meaning to the phrase, “playing like crap.” Upon even further inspection I realized that amidst otherwise traditional nativity scenes, there was always a caganer lingering somewhere in the background. The salesman, looking quite pleased with himself, asked me, “what you think?” I couldn’t really tell him what I was really thinking, which was imagining the inevitable Stephen Colbert caganer sketch. But instead I simply looked at him and asked the obvious: “why?”
“It’s fun. It’s tradition.” Sensing my dissatisfaction with this answer, the playfulness melted from his face and in all seriousness he said, “why does a fat man come down your chimney?” And there it was. As so it is with most holiday traditions: even those that adhere most closely to these traditions often don’t really know why. It is so normal that rarely do we ever question the origins of our customs let alone stop to consider how completely abnormal these customs truly are. How many Americans know that our Santa Claus is a bizarre amalgamation of Saint Nicholas, a Greek bishop famous for secret gift-giving who presided over an area in modern-day Turkey, the Norse god Odin of war and poetry, the pagan myth of the Wild Hunt where the dead take up weapons, horses and dogs and engage in a spectacular chase across the night sky during the winter solstice, the Dutch folk tale of Sinterklaas and the English folk tale of Father Christmas, the imaginations of 19th Century poet Clement Clarke Moore and cartoonist Thomas Nast, editorials appearing in Harper’s and The New York Sun, and of course, advertisements for Coca-Cola during the Great Depression? How often are we confronted with the question, “why a fat man with flying reindeer?”
Upon further research, it seems that caga tío and caganer might be derived from the Yule log, also a pagan custom associated with the winter solstice, and the accompanying tradition of renewing or fertilizing the earth in preparation for spring. Some argue that adding a caganer to a nativity scene gives the episode a sense of reality, rather than folklore. And as with Santa Claus, the Catalan obsession with scatology have found its place in modern times, albeit an awkward place from an outsider’s perspective. As my cultural education quickly devolved into a high-pressure sales pitch, I wondered whether anyone back home might have the necessary sense of humor to appreciate a little Catalan Christmas-themed souvenir. I won’t ruin the surprise, but someone special in the United States is getting a miniature Tiger Woods in of all his glory.