As Thanksgiving week peaks back in the US and the annual pilgrimage out of town hits high stride, I’ve started to explore the holiday traditions in my new part of the world. Buckle up, I’ve got quite a tale to tell.
Thanksgiving, of course, is an American invention and not observed here in Spain, although goodies such as canned cranberries and stuffing mix can be found in the American store here. But even if Thanksgiving is not on the radar, the onset of the holiday season is getting underway at the same time. Lights are appearing above major streets and the stores are filling with red and green decorations. This is a major holiday season for Spain with a full calendar of observances in December.
The most colorful, not to mention the most bizarre, tradition is the “caganer,” which roughly translates to the “crapper” or the “pooper.” If the addition of a defecator to the holidays immediately stops you in your tracks, you’re not alone. This one is definitely a head-scratcher.
The Spanish do love nativity displays, similar to the US, but they add a little color, so to speak, by putting in a squatting figure, pants down and deeply engrossed in a number two. He may be off to the side, or even partially hidden in a corner for the kids to try and find, but he is there in all his glory as part of the nativity.
The exact origins of this tradition are a little cloudy beyond knowing that it dates back more than 200 years. There are a number of theories as to why the figure exists, including it harking back to simpler times of agriculture when fertilizing the soil and bonding with Mother Nature was so important, or that it shows all people are equal in the things they do, literally.
Regardless of exactly why he has attained this place of honor (minus a throne), you have to give the Spanish credit for having fun with it. What kid wouldn’t enjoy a spirited game of hide the caganer on Christmas Eve? And while the traditional design of a caganer is a peasant wearing an iconic red hat, Catalonians also reinvent him every year, buoying their spirits in the process, by depicting celebrities, politicians and even royals as the squatting figure. Pretty much any famous name imaginable, plus nuns, devils and Santa Claus gets the treatment. From Elvis to the Pope, Barack Obama to Spongebob, are depicted. If America ever adopts the tradition, a whole new licensing income stream may open up for Justin Bieber, John Boehner or whatever other butt the populace wants to lampoon. You can see quite the colorful assortment of caganer’s here.
And while this may seem humorous, it’s serious business here. Nativity scenes without a caganer draw protests and boycotts. You will tempt the wrath of the Catalonians if a phantom pooper isn’t somewhere on the grounds.
But the bathroom references do not stop there. The locals build on this tradition with the Tio de Nadal (roughly, a Christmas log). The blanket-clad stump often has a face painted on it, is adorned with a red hat and is “fed” goodies such as crackers, fruit and even wine in the days leading up to Christmas. The intention, once the big day arrives, is to beat on the log with sticks until it defecates candy for the kids. A log pooping out generous handfuls of candy is a sign of a healthy and prosperous Christmas. Can you imagine a ceremony involving beating something with sticks being recreated in a politically correct US classroom?
On a cleaner note, Christmas day here does feature a big family meal, just not involving the usual American turkey. And the next day (St. Stephen’s Day), it’s customary to take the leftovers to relatives. I’m not sure what that says about your relatives.
The Spanish version of April Fool’s actually comes on December 28, where gags include sticking paper figures on unsuspecting backs. New Year’s is rung in by eating a fresh grape with each of the 12 rings as the clock strikes toward midnight, often chased by a drink. No doubt the Spanish also have trouble remembering New Year’s after 12 quick drinks.
The holiday season is capped off by celebrating the Epiphany, or Three King’s Day (El Dia de Los Reyes Magos), around January 6. In Barcelona, there is a huge parade and abundant distribution of candy to the kids. A traditional, donut-shaped king’s cake is served, with one lucky person finding a figure of a king inside signifying good fortune to come and one finding a dried bean that might mean they get stuck with the dinner bill. In honor of the biblical tale of the three wise men, presents are given to the kids in plentiful numbers that often outnumber the haul of Christmas Day. And just to make it all a little more unique, children also clean their shoes and leave them on windowsills, with good children receiving gifts and the more naughty only getting candy shaped as, wait for it, a poop. Christmas here is sounding more like a Jim Carrey movie all the time.
RANDOM THOUGHTS: Heavy sweets seem to be the favorite at Christmas here, including large pieces of nougat (turron) and individually wrapped, crumbly cookies. Add in the abundance of bakeries and there’s no shortage of sugar in these parts… There were some very nice tributes to Pat Quinn, the former NHL player and executive who had a long and successful career before passing away this week. Many were quite touching, but it spurred me to thinking, why do these tributes almost always come after death? Wouldn’t it have been terrific for a retired 71-year-old to hear how people thought about him before kicking the bucket? Just my two cents..