Christmas in Catalunya

Christmas lights
Xmas is a magical time of twinkly lights – and too much food and drink!

If you are spending your first Xmas on the Costa Brava, you’ll notice that there’s quite a difference in how it’s celebrated here compared to your home country – and even if it’s not your first, there are probably a few customs that might be new to you. They certainly have some unusual ones here – a few of them involving poo!

Xmas or Christmas?

First of all, before anyone gets offended or upset, using the abbreviated “Xmas” at times instead of “Christmas” is not an attempt to “take Christ out of Xmas” as some people mistakenly believe. The “X” comes from the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of the Greek word Christós (Χριστός), which became “Christ” in English and other languages. “X” has a long history, over a thousand years in fact, of uncontroversially being used in place of “Christ” for various purposes, and is not a “pagan” spelling. On the other hand, for those who are not Christian, or not religious, it may be a spelling they are more comfortable with as the festivity becomes less and less religious as the years go by. Here we’ll use both. 0In any case, in Castellano Spanish it’s “Navidad” and in Catalan it’s “Nadal”.

So, yes, Rafael Nadal is Rafa Xmas!

Xmas Markets

Most people tend to associate Xmas Markets with more-northern European countries and cities such as the famous examples in Strasbourg, København, Nürnberg and Kraków (amongst many others), but Sevilla, all the way down in Andalucía in southern Spain, also ranks highly in the list of “Europe’s Best Xmas Markets”.

Here in Catalunya, Barcelona city has four separate Christmas Markets, the longest-running of which, the Fira de Santa Llúcia in the plaza in front of Barcelona Cathedral, has been on the go since 1786. Slightly smaller is the Fira de Nadal de la Sagrada Família held in the square right beside the cathedral, and then there’s the Fira de Nadal del Port Vell located in La Plaça del Portal de la Pau near the Columbus Monument at the end of Las Ramblas. Finally there’s the Fira de Reis is located just off Plaça de la Universitat which focuses mainly on children’s toys and other gifts. Each has its own starting and finishing dates but if you’re a real Xmas Market fiend then head down to the “Big Smoke” on the last weekend before Xmas as that’s the only one when they’re all open!

Closer to home, Plaça de la Independència in Girona city also hosts a Mercat de Nadal of over twenty wooden stalls with a focus on “making it a market of reference in terms of quality, sustainability and energy efficiency”. You’ll find everything you need for Xmas with “all kinds of gift items made by local artisans (such as nativity figures, wooden toys, textile accessories, ceramic, glass and wood items, and jewelry), and artisan food products, such as sausages and cheeses, sweets and nougats”. The market runs until the end of December.

Xmas candles

For Christians, Christmas starts with the lighting of the first Advent candle on the first Sunday of December (or occasionally, if the first Sunday is late, the final one in November. The Advent Wreath, as it’s called in English, (“Corona de Adviento in Castellano or “Corona d’Advent in Catalan) was originally a 16th century Lutheran practice but spread to just about all other Christian denominations over time. As happens with such things, it changed slightly as it spread. The simplest version is an evergreen wreath, or “crown” in Spain/Catalunya, with four candles, with one being lit on each Sunday of 0of December. The first three candles are often purple, with the final candle to be lit being white. Also common is four purple candles surrounding a fifth (white) candle in the centre which is lit on Christmas day. In yet another variation, two purple candles are lit first, then a pink on the third Sunday and a white on the fourth. Here in Spain (including Catalunya) you may see more colourful version with the first candle lit being purple, or sometimes yellow, followed by a green one on the second Sunday, then a pink candle on the third and a red on the fourth – plus a white candle in the centre. Candles are replaced as they burn out and on Xmas Day all four or five should be new and should burn out together.

The Crib

The feast of the Immaculate Conception on the 8th of December marks the beginning of the Xmas season in Spain, a predominantly Catholic country. Although there aren’t any particular events on this day, this is when people traditionally began to decorate their homes for Christmas. The most important feature of these decorations is the pessebre, Catalan for the crib, or nativity scene. This includes all the usual characters of nativity scenes everywhere: Mary, Joseph, an empty manger awaiting the soon-to-be-born Jesus, the shepherds and their sheep, some farm animals etc. Some Catalans take this quite seriously and reconstruct not just the stable but the whole village of Bethlehem and in certain towns live Nativity cribs are erected. Even for the non-religious these live pessebres are a fascinating cultural event that can be enjoyed by believers and non-believers alike. Just a few of the locations where there are live cribs include Bàscara, Pals, Calonge and Castell d’Aro (the oldest one in Catalunya). What’s most curious to non-Catalans though is a character that is not to be found in nativity scenes anywhere else in the world: the Caganer!

The Caganer

Believe it or not, the Caganer is a figure in traditional Catalan dress, squatting with his trousers pulled down taking a dump! This custom originated in the 17th century when it was believed the Caganer would bring luck for a good harvest the following year as his faeces would fertilize the crops. Nowadays he is commonly a satirical figure and the traditionally dressed figure is often replaced with figurines of politicians, celebrities or sports stars, supposedly to bring them back down to earth and keep their egos in check! Having said that, most celebrities feel honoured to be deemed worthy enough to make it as a Caganer! For the record, the biggest-selling caganer of all time is Lionel Messi, with figurines of the Argentinian superstar selling out even before he lifted the World Cup in December 2022. The company that makes the caganers had already produced various Messi editions in Barcelona, PSG and Argentina shirts and immediately went to work on a new Messi caganer wearing a gold medal and lifting the World Cup trophy in his national jersey. That company, by the way, is based in Torroella de Montgrí, right here in the Empordà! Check out who made this year’s list!

Some celebrities represented as traditional Catalan Xmas figurines known as Caganers.

Caga Tió

And if you think that’s weird, that’s not all! There’s something else that you’ll also find in homes here in Catalunya and nowhere else: Caga Tió. In English, the equivalent would be more or less the “crapping log”! Yep, you read right, the crapping log! Sometimes foreigners mistakenly think it means “crapping uncle” as the word tío translates as ‘uncle’. Caga Tió (accent on the ó) is a name that doesn’t really have a translation and whose origins are unclear. In fact, the more formal name of this strange individual is Tió de Nadal, but everyone calls him Caga Tió. Basically, he is a short piece of log with two twigs for legs and a happy smiley face drawn onto one end. He is then given a typical Catalan red sock berretina hat to wear and a blanket to cover his rear so he won’t feel the cold! The idea is that the children of the house look after Caga Tió from the 8th of December onwards by giving him food to ‘eat’ every night; usually fruit or orange peel, turrón, sweets – but no cooked food! The incentive for the children is that the better they feed him the more presents he will poop outcome Xmas. But that’s not the end of it – there’s more! When it comes to Christmas Eve/Day, it seems poor Caga Tió needs a little encouragement to come up (or out!) with the goods, so each child in the house is given a stick to beat the log with while singing a song.

caga tió – shit, log
caga torró – shit turrón,
avellanes i mató – hazelnuts and cottage cheese.
si no cagues bé – if you don’t shit well
et daré un cop de bastó – I’ll hit you with a stick

Caga Tió - The “Crapping Log”.
Caga Tió – The “Crapping Log”.

Onto the fire!

In the old days, a simple piece of a log was just covered with a blanket without the smiley face, the twiggy legs or the berretina, and some more purist Catalans have nothing but scorn for the modern commercialised Caga Tió. Back then, the kids used to be sent to their bedrooms to say a prayer, during which time the parents would hide some presents under the blanket covering the log. The kids would then run back, beat Caga Tió with their sticks singing the rhyme and look under the blanket to find a gift. This process would be repeated until the log ‘produced’ an onion or garlic signalling the end of the presents. And then, in gratitude, he got thrown onto the fire!!

The day for the giving of the main presents in Catalunya, and the rest of Spain, was traditionally the 6th of January. In more recent times though many children get their presents from under the Christmas tree on the 24th or 25th as in most other western countries; one reason being that kids always felt it unfair that they were given their new toys just before they had to return to school. The luckier kids might even receive something on both days!

No sleeping

Of course, before receiving any gifts everyone is supposed to go to mass to celebrate the birth of Christ as that is (or, at least, was) what Christmas was supposed to be all about, right?! Those who do still observe the religious aspect of Christmas mostly go to the midnight mass on the night of the 24th of December, right after their main Xmas dinner. This mass is often called La Misa del Gallo in Spanish, or the Rooster’s Mass, as according to the legend a cock crowed the night Jesus was born. One old tradition was to walk through the streets after midnight mass singing: “Esta noche es Noche Buena, Y no es noche de dormir” which means “Tonight is the good night and it is not meant for sleeping!”, to the accompaniment of guitars and drums and so Xmas Eve became known as Noche Buena.

Traditional Christmas food

December 25th, Xmas Day, is a quieter day here in Spain than in many countries and Catalan families traditionally have escudella, a broth made with chickpeas, meatball and vegetables, followed by a main course of chicken with pine nuts and raisins. The following day, Sant Esteve or St Stephen’s Day is the most important family day of the Xmas for Catalans and the meat and veg used to make the broth the day before. the carn d’olla (the pot’s meat), are used to make cannelloni. Desert typically consists of turrón, a nougat with honey and almonds. And, of course, there is always wine and cava!

Cannelloni, soup with galets pasta and the meat and vegetables used in the broth.
Assorted varieties of turrón: traditional Christmas nougat.

December Fool’s Day!

The 28th is known as the Día de los Santos Inocentes (Day of the Blessed Innocents). It is similar to April Fool’s Day in some other countries where Catalans play tricks on each other and basically act like children. This is in honour of the ‘innocents’ of the Bible story where King Herod ordered all male children under the age of two to be put to death when he heard that Jesus, the future “King of the Jews”, had been born.

Moving swiftly on, we then have Noche Vieja (“Old Night”, or New Year’s Eve to us). If you are thinking about finding a bar to go out and celebrate in, it won’t be as easy as you think! Even in the cities, most Catalan-owned places close their doors around in the evening, typically around 21:00, to head home to celebrate with family and friends. Many will then reopen for business around 1am and remain open till close to dawn! One tradition that is common to all of Spain is the eating of twelve grapes at midnight – one for each strike of the clock – supposedly ensuring good fortune in the coming year. In Catalunya, it is also customary to put a gold object in your glass of cava before drinking it, also for good luck, and to wear red underwear in the hope of being lucky in love!

Els Reis – The Magi (The “3” Kings)

Finally, the Xmas season finally wraps up on 6 Jan with the Epiphany: El Día de los Reyes Magos (ESP) or El Dia dels Reis Mags (CAT) – the feast of the ‘Three Wise Kings’. Those “Wise Men”, also known as the Magi, feature in the Christmas stories around the world, but did you know that they were only mentioned in one of the gospels and that their number was never specified? As the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were mentioned, it became the assumption in Western Christianity that there were therefore three kings, but in Eastern Christianity the Magi can number up to twelve.

Anyway, here in Spain the Reyes/Reis are pretty important and the festivities begin on the 5th when the Reyes arrive and are greeted by a procession. The ‘Kings’ throw sweets and small gifts to children, who then go home to leave out cognac and an orange or some walnuts for the kings and water for their camels, as well as their own shoes to be filled with their presents. The following morning they open their presents and then everyone sits down for another family meal. (Of course, they do!). The traditional dessert after this meal is the roscón de reyes, a ring-shaped cake with two items inside: a figurine of a king and a dried green bean. The person who finds the figurine in their piece of cake is crowned king for the day while whoever finds the bean pays for the cake. Way to get your year off to a lucky start! Either way though, mind your teeth!!

Cookies of the Three Reyes, typical during Epiphany celebrations

Bon Nadal!

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