Being here in Spain in December, it has been interesting to learn about and see how preparations for the big day in Spain differ from ours in the U.K.
The first thing we noticed was how few decorations there were in the shops and restaurants. Coming from the UK we are obviously used to the decorations starting to go up more or less as soon as the shops have cleared away their Halloween displays at the end of October (and sometimes even earlier) and so it has been very refreshing not to be bombarded with Christmas for months and months.
Feast of the Immaculate Conception
In fact, most shops, restaurants and homes don’t put their decorations up here until on or after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on 8th December. This is a national holiday in Spain, along with 6th December, which is Constitution Day where Spaniards celebrate the day they approved their constitution (and became a constitutional monarchy) in 1978. This year these two holidays fell on a Tuesday and a Thursday and so the whole week has been treated as a holiday here: the campsite has been much busier with lots of Spanish families enjoying some time together and different opening hours in shops and restaurants.
Anyway, we were confused about the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. We assumed that it referred to the conception of Jesus, but after a bit of research we discovered that it is actually celebrating the conception of his mother, Mary, in the womb of her mother, Anne. So, as I now understand it, Mary was conceived of ‘original sin’ (which she inherited from her parents) but then at the very moment of her conception, God redeemed her because he knew that in the future she would consent to bear his son. The immaculate conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb on the other hand is celebrated at the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord on 25 March, nine months before Christmas, the timing of which makes much more sense!
Barcelona Christmas Markets
One of the things that we always liked to do at home in the run-up to Christmas was visit the Christmas markets in Manchester and soak up the festive atmosphere. So, it was with great excitement that we headed into Barcelona on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception to see how their Christmas markets compared to ours.
There were extra stalls along the Ramblas, but the main Christmas market was in front of the magnificent Cathedral of Barcelona (along the Avinguda de la Catedral, between Placa Nova and Placa d’Antoni Maura). In essence, it was just like the Christmas markets at home – incredibly busy and almost impossible to move, with people stopping suddenly in front of you and others causing chaos trying to navigate babies buggies through the throngs.
However, there were also a few subtle differences: firstly my feet weren’t cold, which was a welcome change; and secondly, what was on sale was quite different. Here there were no stalls selling gluhwein or bratwurst, or strings of French garlic or even any products from elsewhere in Europe. The vast majority of the stalls were selling one of three things: figures, animals and stables to make up a nativity scene, including the famous Catalan caganer who I will explain in a minute; lovely hand-tied bunches of mistletoe; and Caga Tios of all different shapes and sizes and again I will explain who Caga Tio is below.
Apparently the nativity scene is one of the most important features of the Christmas decorations in many Spanish homes. When we were in Provence, we learnt that this was also true in many French homes. In Provence the figures that make up the nativity are called Santons and their scenes include figures from village life in France not just the traditional shepherds and kings. As in Provence, families here in Spain apparently go out into the countryside to collect bark and moss to use in their nativity scenes and you could see some of those on sale at the market too. They were also selling stables in which to group your figures, wells complete with flowing water, campfires with glowing flames and all sorts of other accessories to add to your scene.
There is one figure though who is unique to Catalan nativity scenes and that is the caganer. The caganer is a figure of a man wearing traditional Catalan clothes. He is squatting with his trousers around his ankles and he is pooing! The poo is meant to bring good luck as it fertilises the soil and helps ensure a good harvest for the following year. To have a nativity scene without a caganer is considered a bad omen.
Of course, as well as the traditional caganer figures, you can now also buy them in the guise of your favourite pop star, celebrity, politician, movie character or person from history – Princess Leah, the Queen, Cinderella, the Barcelona football team, Elton John, Hillary Clinton, even the Pope – no-one was exempt the indignity of being depicted squatting and pooing. On the stall I was looking at, there were plenty of Obamas and Hillarys left, but they had sold out of Trump figures!
Caga Tio aka ‘Poo log’
If you thought the caganer was a strange Christmas tradition, let me tell you about Caga Tio! We have seen these smiling wooden logs on sale everywhere here and wondered what on earth they were as they look slightly Scottish with their tartan blankets. But Caga Tio is not Scottish; Caga Tio is a ‘poo log’. Yes, you did read that right. The tradition here is that Caga Tio comes out on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the children look after him until Christmas Eve: they cover him with a blanket to make sure that he is warm and feed him turron (like nougat with nuts in it) and sweets every evening to make sure that he is nice and full. Then after dinner on Christmas Eve, dessert comes courtesy of Caga Tio. The children are given a stick with which they hit Caga Tio and they sing a special song:
“Caga Tio avellanes I torro (Caga Tio hazelnuts and Turron)
Si no vols cagar (If you do not want to poo)
Et donanem un cop de pal. (We will hit you with a stick)”
In another version, the song is more about what Caga Tio might poo out:
“Caga Tio avellanes i torrons (Caga Tio hazelnuts and Turron)
No caguis arengades, que son massa salades (Don’t poo herring, which are too salty)
Caga torrons, que son mes bons (Poo sweets, they are good)
The children then reach inside Caga Tio and find sweets and small toys.
Apparently children here don’t queue up to see Father Christmas, they queue up to hit Caga Tio with a stick. And this is exactly what we did. There was a giant Caga Tio outside the cathedral in Barcelona, next to the Christmas markets and so we stood in line ready to join in with this peculiarly Catalan tradition. The girls didn’t know the song they were supposed to sing, but they could certainly hit a log with a stick! What a brilliant, if bizarre Christmas tradition! As a friend pointed out the other day, it is a wonder it hasn’t caught on everywhere. After all, what child doesn’t love a poo joke?
After this, the queue to get into the cathedral suddenly seemed to have disappeared and so we decided we would go inside to see if we could find the nativity scene that is always displayed in the cloisters there. The cathedral was filling up with people ready for a service, but we managed to get around the side and into the beautiful Gothic cloisters. The nativity scene was just that – not a single crib or stable with the figures all grouped around, but a huge scene that filled the centre of the cloisters and was big enough to have to walk around it. In the darkness, with the cloisters lit up and the music from the cathedral drifting in, it all felt pretty magical. There were also lots of white geese: they apparently live in the cloisters and their number is always kept at 13, which is supposed to be the age of Saint Eulalia, one of the patron Saints of Barcelona and the person to whom the cathedral is dedicated, when she was killed by the Romans and martyred in 303.
Placa de Sant Jaume
After this we walked back towards Placa de Sant Jaume where we had earlier seen a big Christmas tree and some giant baubles or snow globes. We wanted to see them lit up and they did look beautiful, all blues and pinks, reflecting the lights in the square around them. Apparently there is always a nativity scene in Placa de Sant Jaume: it changes from year to year and is always on a different theme. We couldn’t work out what each of the spheres represented, but it didn’t matter.
By now it was starting to get cold though and so it felt a lot more Christmassy. This was the first day here that I have felt even remotely festive. We bought ourselves a mini Caga Tio Christmas tree decoration, E bought herself some figures for a nativity scene and M bought some chunky fingerless gloves and then we headed back to the car and back to the campsite.
What an amazing day we had had, seeing some more of Barcelona and being part of a traditional Catalan Christmas. I’m sure the girls will never forget the experience of hitting Caga Tio with a stick and the magical atmosphere of wandering around the cathedral cloisters at dusk looking at the nativity scene there. And I know that from now on I will smile every time I see a nativity scene laid out, remembering the peculiar Catalan pooing man!