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Catalan Christmas Traditions: Celebrate like the locals

Have you ever wondered how does Spain Celebrate Christmas? Well, it’s entirely dependent on the region. If you’ve spent any time in Catalonia, you’ll know the Catalan’s have some pretty wild and crazy customs. The traditions taking place during the festive season are no exception to the trend. If you want to blend in with the vibrant Catalan culture during the holidays or expand your knowledge of their wacky celebrations, this read is for you! Allow me to share my favorite Catalan Christmas Traditions, along with a taste of Catalan cuisine during the holidays, so you too can celebrate like a local.

Caga Tió

Known as ‘Noche Buena’ (December 24th) all across Spain, here in Catalonia children and parents alike, take part in what is known as Tió. More commonly called Caga Tió nowadays. The literal translation is ‘poop log,’ bet I caught your attention now! I am forewarning you; the word poop may come up more than once. The Catalans have an odd obsession with it, but I’ll get into that a bit later.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with Santa Claus and his reindeer; dropping presents from the air into the chimneys of homes across the world. For the Catalan children, they look to their lovely tió, aka poop log, to bring gifts.

The Famous Poop Log

As you see from the image, caga tió is no more than a charmingly decorated hollow log of wood with stick legs, red hat, and its face painted. The tradition of the tió begins around the 8th of December, starting with the feast of the immaculate conception. Families typically set out their Tió de Nadal on this day and cover it with a red blanket. For the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, the children ‘feed’ the tió with turrons and orange peels. Then on Christmas Eve, something quite magical happens. Out of nowhere, or that’s what we want the children to believe, the tió accumulates a pile of goodies. That’s right, after weeks of feeding, the poop log needs to expel some waste. What better way than in the form of presents, right?

Caga Tió Ritual

With sticks in hand, the kids adorn the log with a little tough love as they repeatedly hit it to the rhythm of a traditional song. Once the song is sung to its entirety, the red cover is pulled off to reveal an assortment of presents. The tradition says that in exchange for a warm blanket, food, and a beating, the Tió poops out little presents and sweets for the children to enjoy. I don’t know about you, but if all I have to do for a few gifts and treats is hit a log while singing a ridiculous sounding song, I say, fine by me! There are countless versions of the popular song; however, one worth showcasing is ft. Norah Jones. I don't know whether to shake my head in shame at such an odd tradition or join in on the celebrations.

El Caganer

I wasn’t lying when I said we’d be talking more about poop. Yes, that’s right, El Caganer is another one of the quintessential scatological Catalan Christmas traditions. You may not recognize the name, but you’ve probably seen him squatting with his pants down on the shelves of souvenir shops. El Caganer is known for taking the shape and form of popular characters, such as FC Barcelona's all-star player Messi. Even the president of the United States of America, Barack Obama, is now part of the El Caganer collection.

What’s the significance of El Caganer?

Many people consider the El Caganer a sign of prosperity. I know what you’re thinking, it doesn’t seem like it, but hear me out. What acts as a natural fertilizer? Manure of course! Well, when El Caganer poops, they say he fertilizes the land for the coming year. Thank goodness we are only speaking about a figurine, and none of this happens for real, things could get messy fast! The little pooping figurine is a wacky conversation starter or great for terminating a conversation, depending on with whom you bring the topic up.

Traditional Christmas Meal for Catalans

I couldn't talk about Catalan Christmas traditions without mentioning food. For the rest of Spain, the 24th and 25th are the most important holiday feast days during Christmas. In Catalonia, the feasting begins on the 25th, with the traditional sopa de galets and pilota (shell pasta & small meatballs). Personally, the 26th of December is my favorite day for eating local Catalan food. 

It is believed that Catalans started celebrating the day of Sant Esteve, December 26th, to consume all the uneaten food from the previous day’s feast. This practice was also a great money saver for the next day's meal. This doesn’t surprise me, especially knowing how tight the Catalans are with their money. Wait, before you start the attack! I’ve also heard this from plenty of Catalan’s, so it’s not just me who sees them as frugal.

If you are a fan of tapas, I'm sorry to say; you probably won’t find a wide selection over the holidays. You can although, look forward to many traditional and comfort food dishes throughout the Christmas season in Catalonia.

Christmas Treats!

Many Spanish Christmas traditions incorporate some pretty delicious sweets into the mix over the holidays. If you are having a Barcelona Christmas, you’ll also be able to enjoy the treats! The Els Reis, Roscón de Reyes, or Tortell de Reis (in Catalonia) is a delicate round sweet pastry, with a crown in the middle. Placed randomly in the cake are a figurine of one of the Magic Kings and a dried bean. For the unlucky one who gets the bean in their piece of tortell, they are appointed to buy the Tortell de Reis the following year.

What about if you find the king? Lucky you, the crown is yours to keep. Don’t get too excited though; it’s only a paper crown. Slight variations exist across Spain and throughout the world, but I’d say Els Reis is made best in Catalonia.

If you are not a fan of cake, try a turrón. Although turrónes are a part of the typical Spanish Christmas traditions, Catalonia does throw on their unique twist. Try the turró de massapà or turró d'Agramunt for the most traditional Catalan varieties.

Catalan Nativity Play

I don’t identify myself with the Catholic faith; however, I must admit, that Catalans sure know how to put on a humorous and light-hearted nativity play. In their reenactment, they introduce a plot twist that incorporates the possible origins of why we say "Jesus," when someone sneezes rather than "bless you." Many people believe the origins come from before the middle ages. They thought that when someone sneezed, small demons were expelled from the body. In order to kill them quick, you had to say "Jesus" before they entered the body of someone else. Although no one seems to know the exact origins, the Catalan nativity play likes to add the story in to keep things light.

Catalan Christmas Carols

Now, to get you in the Christmas spirit, take a listen to the most infamous Catalan carol of all, "fum, fum, fum." If the upbeat and catchy tune doesn’t get you humming, I don’t know what will. Said to have originated in the 16th or 17th century. There are many versions found throughout Europe, in places like Southern Italy and across the world.

Catalan Christmas Anecdote

The best way to finish off is by sharing an anecdote from Albert, one of our incredible and witty developers, from Catalonia, always putting in countless hours working on the back end. Yes, I admit, that was a pretty sad attempt to lead into the Caga Tió anecdote, so nonetheless let’s jump right in.

“I can tell you I was a bit fixated about the Tió for a few years. Friends of the family lived closer to the countryside, so near Xmas, we spent the evening there trying a kickass telescope to see Jupiter. The father of the family took a sick axe from the garage, went a few meters deep to a forest and axed down some wood. Then he put it together in the shape of a Tió, painted a face, put a blanket and a barretina (traditional Catalan hat you will see mostly around Xmas) and bam! The wooden thing was a fully functioning Tió. Pretty magical night if you axe me“.

So there you have it, my favorite Catalan Christmas traditions. I have spent a considerable amount of time in other parts of Spain over the holidays, and can honestly say, Catalonia does the holidays best! When someone asks me how does Spain celebrate Christmas, I tend to highlight the Barcelona Christmas and Catalan traditions. Why? Their uniqueness, intertwined with the history and culture of the region showcase the beautiful vibrancy of its people.

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