The Lung Brothers

Hanging out at the extreme end of the long tail ...

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Christmas in Scatalonia

As mentioned before, CS and I spent Christmas in Dublin this year and although it was fun, we did miss out on some of the charming seasonal traditions that are so exclusive to the northeast of Spain. Local traditions can often seem a little bizarre to outsiders, as is well known, but nothing compares to the scatological fun that is to be had in Catalonia around yuletide. When we explain these peculiar rites to visiting friends, they usually refuse to believe us until they go out on the streets and see it for themselves.


In Spain, as in Ireland, it has always been a tradition to put a model of the manger under the Christmas tree, complete with small figurines of Mary, Joseph, shepherds, sundry animals and God Jr. himself, the adoree, lying supine in his crib. We all have childhood memories of taking December walks in order to collect the moss and twigs that are needed to give the little setting a touch of realism. The most impressive mangers (pesebres) I have ever seen were in the centre of Naples where ateliers occupying several small streets were completely dedicated to crafting the most beautiful and elaborate miniature nativity scenes for the discerning local households.

But the Catalans go one better.

There is one extra figurine in the Catalan manger that you won’t find anywhere else in the world, the Caganer, the ‘Shitter’ to be precise. In the corner of the manger you have a model figure dressed in traditional Catalan garb, with his trousers round his ankles, squatting down and taking a dump. He is supposed to represent good health, fortune and fertility although to the untrained eye, he just seems to represent some guy crapping on the ground a few yards away from the newborn son of God.

You can see why nativity plays never really caught on in the schools over here.

But that’s not all. The typical caganer is dressed mostly in white and wears a ‘barretina’ on his head. This is the type of floppy hat that the extras wear in bad Hollywood productions of the French Revolution. However, there is a new trend to collect celebrity caganers, so you can now find squatting little figures of politicians, famous football players, singers, actors and, although it initially caused a huge scandal, members of the Spanish royal family. It is certainly a curious and endearing little custom although I can’t see it ever catching on in Utah.

Now if there were just one defecation-related Christmas accessory over here, you could just about accept it. But what if there were two? Do you believe in coincidences?


The 6th of January is known as the Kings’ Day, when the three wise Magi were supposed to have arrived at the manger having been guided GPS-style by a wandering star. There they regaled the infant Christ with all their duty free shopping, well at least the gold, frankincense and myrrh. The cartons of Lucky Strike and bottles of Johnny Walker they kept for themselves. This is therefore the more traditional day to give gifts over here, not Christmas day as it is in the more Anglo-Saxon cultures.

However there is an exception to this rule. On Christmas Day Catalan children are lucky enough to receive turrón (a delicious bar of solid candy that tastes a little like extruded sweet peanut butter) and small gifties from their favourite uncle. The Cagatío (or ‘Uncle Shit’) is a small log of wood about a foot long. A smiling Thomas-the-Tank-Engine face is painted on one end and two little pegs are inserted underneath it so it looks like it’s propping itself up on it’s forelegs. As a final touch, a barretina is placed above the face and voila. You have yourself a working Cagatío.

On the evenings leading up to the Christmas, children put a plate of food under Cagatío’s face before going up to bed. Why? Because the more Cagatío eats, the more gifts and candy he’ll be able to give you when the time comes, Silly. The parents take the food away before they go to bed and tell the children that the smiling lump of wood gobbled it up overnight. You can probably see where this is going.

Before continuing I should perhaps reiterate that I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.

Then comes Christmas Eve and things really start getting weird. The Cagatío is covered with a dishcloth or towel and the kids are given long sticks. Then on the count of three the children start walloping the log while singing a song that goes something like:

Uncle Shit, good Uncle Shit. Shit out candy for us!

After a few minutes of flaying the bark off their inanimate benefactor and chanting their poop song, the little ones are sent off to bed. The parents take the poor brutalised Uncle out from under the dishcloth and replace it with gifts and sweets. The next day the rug rats wake to find that their Uncle is no longer under the cloth but has skipped town. Nevertheless, thanks to all the plates of food and the sound thrashing that they gave him, he managed leave a bunch of goodies in his wake. Hell the guy’s practically MADE of roughage.

Neither of these traditions belong to a strange bran-eating sect of Christianity, they are in fact standard practices for common or garden local Catholics. So what is it with these people that associate the festive winter season so much with bowel movements? Beats me.

So there you have it. A posting with cultural diversity, seasonal cheer, toilet humour and domestic violence. I think we can safely say that the lowest common denominator of our readership has been catered for.


Blogger Bottle Rocket Fire Alarm said...

Finally, a religion for me. I've never heard of shit turning into food, only the other way around.

I have noticed the commonalities in appearance between a good gumbo and bad diarrhea, and the similarities between and solid log and a jumbo tootsie roll, but this..


just takes the cake. I wonder if there is a Catholic candle for this. I love Cathloic candles.

3:22 pm  
Anonymous Davezilla said...

Best Christmas story evah!

3:02 pm  
Anonymous Ricardipus said...

...I'll never go to the bathroom the same way again.

And I think I may never visit Catalonia, either... strange people there.


4:34 pm  
Anonymous Lung the Younger said...

Strange? You don't know the half of it Ricardipus.......

...but you will if you stay tuned to this blog!

6:32 pm  
Anonymous It's Me... Maven said...

Okay, here's the poop. I'm going to be in Barcelona for all of 24 hours soaking up the local culture in May of 2008. I read this post (as obviously I'm working my way through your blog!), and now I'm hooked.

I have a scatalogical bent to my sense of humor, and tho I don't keep a creche/manger in my home during the holidays, I think if I were to obtain a caganer (as well as the rest of the figurines), in Barcelona, I think that would be a fantastic way for me to remember my trip on an annual basis (as well as honor the holiday with a sense of humor).

Please I beg of you, where would I go IN Barcelona to get these figurines? I think this is fantastic!

PS: I plan on referencing this post at Christmas time and linking back as well as passing the link to this post onto some friends with similar senses of humor. Truly enjoyable reading.

My email:
thoughtnuggets AT hotmail DOT COM

5:56 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi everyone! This is a catalan girl who is currently living in London and who is quite surprised of your vision of our culture.

First of all: WE ARE NOT WEIRD! Catalunya has always felt different from the rest of Spain and we have our own cultural traditions (not shared with other parts of Spain) and not always related with Christianism, as the Caganer and the tió traditions.

The tió (not caga-tío, that means "You, shit, guy")is a piece of wood. Having in mind that the tió is a very remote tradition you would understand that the fire in December was the best gift to be given to those people who lived many many centuries ago in not so comfortable houses as we have today.

During the medieval age some vassals used to go to the lord castle to give him pieces of wood to be burnt around the winter solstice (22nd Dec), to be warm during the freezing winter. The grateful lord gave them some tips such as food. It was a real present for them, so they linked the idea of taking care of a piece of wood that had been cut and hit until dried in order receive the lord Christmas tip.

And regarding the Caganer: it is a peasant who is going to see Jesus born and who simbolizes abundance because in the old ages people just lived from the earth and we all know how to fertilize the fields to have good crops... exactly, using animals´feces.

That´s why he is seen as a symbol of health for future crops and by extension for people. And it is also funny for children because in the middle of so many sacred figurines, a guy who is showing his bum to everybody is seen as a funny rebel who is different from its sorrounding characters, as Catalunya is from other parts od Spain.

12:55 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding where to buy Caganers / Pixaners* in Barcelona:
every year from the 1st Dec weekend until the 23/12 you can go to La fira de Santa Llúcia in front of La Catedral, in the city centre, and you will there find hundreds of different caganer figurines.

* Pixaner: The piss man: same version than caganer but without showing you his bum, just his... well, you know what he´s showing!

1:02 am  

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