Barcelona Skyline

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Christmas in Barcelona

Every year Barcelona gets revved up for Christmas with its traditional Fira de Santa Llucia, the oldest of local Christmas fairs. It all takes place in and around the Cathedral Square a brisk 15-minute walk from the hotel through the festive Barri Gotic. Three things are featured: Christmas trees of all sizes; traditional ceramics with Christmas themes; and finally manger scenes and cagatios.

It is of the manger scenes and the cagatios that I would like to speak. They have been the subject of some comment over the years and, as far as anyone knows, are unique to Catalunya. Many countries have their manger scenes with Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, shepherds, sheep etc. But Catalans have their own unique contribution: the caganer, "the shitter". He is a Catalan peasant and is found in some obscure corner of the manger, decked out in traditional Catalan peasant garb and floppy red beret, squatting, his peasant trousers around his ankles, taking a...well, you the get the idea. The caganer is one of the great iconic figures of popular Catalan mythology: there is a caganer museum and parodic caganers of local politicians, Barcelona soccer players, and so on. I personally am a bit of a traditionalist and go for the sturdy peasant who has been a fixture at Catalan manger scenes since the end of the 17th century.

For the children there is the cagatio. On Christmas Catalan children receive little gifts including some sweet nougat (torro) from their favorite uncle, the cagatio. This log ("tio" in Catalan) is a small log of wood about a foot long. Before Christmas children paint a face on the log and give it a blanket to keep it warm. Then they feed him copiously for several days. Then on Christmas the children beat their uncle with sticks and sing "caga, log" which means something like "shit, log, shit" and the cagatio defecates presents for the children and, while he's at it, urinates white wine for their parents . The origins of this tradition are misty, but it seems that the original "log" was just a log that was placed on the fire which gave the real winter gifts of heat and light and their symbolic representations, nougat and wine, but things evolve.

Some outsiders consider these traditions, well, a little weird. When explaining these things some Catalans get mystical on you: the caganer symbolizes fertilizing the earth which ensures next year's prosperity, el cagatio is hybernating Nature who needs a few whacks with a stick to wake up, defecate, and start the cycle of life once again. Others will get a little political: Christmas isn't all about the priviledged (the kings) , the common man (the caganer) has his place, too. Most will just say "lighten up" and enjoy a little irreverent, scatalogical humor along with the seriousness of Christmas.


bucklin said...

very interesting, Michael. One of the strange amalgamations of Christianity and "pagan" religions. It sounds like "uncle" has gifts for everyone from his various orifices.

I do not know if this will work but I just discovered this wonderful Egyptian singer Hakim who also sings Arabic music in Spanish. Here is a link which I will also put in an email

you might have to paste this into an address bar on a browser to have it work.

bucklin said...

I have never seen Christmas as being serious, like Easter is. Christmas has always been joyful, until it go politicized in the United States, and killjoys started saying that creches and Christmas trees could not be in public place. I say let them stay but let's have some winter solstice "pagan" displays, lets have Hannukah festivities, Buddhist, Jain, Muslim. Everybody needs a good celebration at the Solstice, when it appears the Sun will never come back and the nights will continue to get longer and longer.
So I am all for the caganet and wish I was in Barcelona to see the creches.