Visiting Barcelona at Christmas offers the tourist plenty of surprises. First, Christmas is a leisurely affair punctuated by several distinct celebrations and culminating on January 6th, and although it is becoming gradually more commercialised it remains far less so than in the Anglophone world. Second, these celebrations involve some distinctly odd and entertaining customs and traditions…
The Catalan Christmas Nativity Scene
The nativity scene is extremely important, and includes not only the scene around the manger, but typically an entire town or city. In Barcelona a public nativity is commissioned by the City Council every year and set up in Placa Sant Jaume. Like all Catalan nativity scenes, it typically includes figures not usually seen in the Anglophone world – a spinning woman, a priest, and a caganer.
Origins of the Caganer
The origin of the caganer, a figure depicted in the act of defecation, squatting with trousers around his ankles, is unclear. It has certainly existed since the 17th Century and is widely believed to be much older. The first explanation that springs to mind is that this is a variation on the common theme of blending pagan and Christian customs, but several more interesting explanations have been offered – that it emphasizes the equality of all human beings, the fact that God makes his appearance without waiting for us to be ready, or that Jesus is God is human form with all that that entails.
Defending the Tradition
In 2005, after a law was passed making public defecation and urination an offence for the first time, the Barcelona City Council outraged the local population by not including a Caganer in the annual public nativity scene. The reason given was that the Caganer ‘set a bad example’, but it was reinstated the following year after a vigorous campaign by local people.
Whilst the traditional Caganer was a Catalan peasant wearing the traditional red barretina hat, modern versions have been cast in the likeness of famous people, sports personalities and politicians. The best place to see a full range of Caganers is in the Christmas market in the Placa de la Seu behind the Cathedral, which is almost exclusively devoted to the sale of items for making nativity scenes and the other essential ingredient of a Catalan Christmas – a log decorated with a smiley face and a red blanket.
The Caga Tio
The Caga Tio is especially important to Catalan children, and rather than being collected from the woods is now more typically bought from a market, ready decorated and equipped for its central role in providing gifts. It is taken home and as from the 8th December (Immaculate Conception) it is carefully cared for, being fed daily and covered at night to keep it warm. Feeding can involve directly introducing sweets and treats such as nuts and dates, ready to be retrieved on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, or offering it yoghurt and oranges.
When it is time for the log to deliver, the children are typically taken into another room to sing the Caga Tio song, which demands that the log poop sweet things and threatens it with violence if it fails to produce the goods. When they return to the Tio they beat it with sticks and the blanket is removed to reveal the sweets, which are shared among all present. In some versions the Tio was then burned in the fireplace to ‘give back’ the warmth it had enjoyed.
The Visit of the Three Kings
The serious present giving, though, is traditionally reserved for January 6th. Today in Barcelona it’s heralded by the arrival of the three kings on the evening of January 5th. They arrive by boat and disembark at the Moll de la Fusta, where they are welcomed and subsequently form the central part of a procession during which children lining the streets are showered with sweets. Local districts such as Barceloneta organise their own ceremonies for presenting children with gifts – a rather more efficient Catalan version of Santa’s grotto, since children are received three at a time! Children return home and traditionally put out a shoe to receive their gifts. If they have been naughty they may receive a piece of coal instead. Sweets shaped and coloured like coal are sold in the shops so that mean relatives can have their jokes!
The usually mild and sunny weather and the relaxed nature of the celebrations make Christmas one of the best times to visit Barcelona. Other good times to enjoy Catalan celebrations are during September’s Festa de la Merce, Sant Jordi on April 23rd and Sant Joan on June 24th.