There is no Santa Claus in Catalonia. That’s right – none. The kids in the northern part of Spain are told that Santa passes them over and doesn’t stop in Catalonia. No, they aren’t being punished because they were ‘bad’. They simply don’t need Santa in Catalonia…they have something else, something better. A Christmas log named Caga Tio.
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What is Caga Tio?
Caga Tío is a Christmas tradition in the Catalonia region. ‘Tio’ means tree trunk or log, and ‘Caga’ means poop. Put them together and it is a poop log. What does the Caga Tio poop you ask? Gifts…duh.
The Caga Tio is a real log that has a happy face painted on one end. It normally has two front legs (wooden twigs) and it wears a traditional Catalan hat called a Barretina. Some even have a pipe…just to make it a wee bit jollier than the pooping log already is.
Caga Tio Tradition
When is Cago Tio celebrated? The Caga Tio makes an appearance in Catalan homes on December 8th at the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Children are excited to see Caga Tio and put a blanket on it and normally place it under the tree where they take care of it sort of like a pet.
They feed it fruit, nuts, turrón (a Catalan candy), stale bread, cookies – basically anything to fatten the log up. They put a blanket over it so that it stays warm. Caga Tio eats and eats all of December. The more you feed it the better as you want a fat and happy Tio for Christmas Eve.
On Christmas Eve, the Tio gets his last meal and the kids go into another room to pray that the Caga Tio leaves presents. Then the kids return and learn the meaning of ‘getting the crap beat out of you’ because they then beat their Caga Tio with a stick in the hopes that it will poop a lot of presents. It’s sort of like a piñata…but with an actual log.
Let me pause right there to let that sink in.
The kids even sing a Caga Tio song during the beating.
Hazelnuts and mató cheese,
If you don’t shit well,
I’ll hit you with a stick,
After a good beating, they lift up the blanket, and low and behold, there are Christmas presents underneath; yup, the Tio just shit presents. This process can continue until you lift up the blanket and you find sardines or herring. Then you know that your Tio is fully cleansed of presents.
At that point you can throw him on the fire…his work is done.
I know what you are thinking…”WTF” is going through your head right now…right? Your mouth might even be hanging open with a look of disbelief on your face. That’s how I reacted when I first heard this tale of a poopy Catalan Christmas. It was too strange to be true…right? I first heard of it from my friends in Girona Spain and like most people, at first, I thought they were pulling my leg. Granted, there are a lot of logs that people use for Christmas – a yule log, and baked log cakes come to mind. But a Christmas poop log was pretty obscure to me.
This is the honest-to-God truth. My friends showed me pictures and had their kids (enthusiastically) tell me about it. You can even watch family home videos on YouTube:
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History of Caga Tio
I searched all over for the origins of the Caga Tio, but surprisingly this tradition is hard to trace. It’s not only practiced in Catalonia but also in Aragon. The best explanation I found was this:
“The origins of Caga Tió is a pagan tradition celebrating the Winter Solstice. In rural villages, Catalans would choose a large tree trunk to set aflame in a bonfire. They’d burn it throughout the winter, and honor it as Tió de Nadal. At some point – and no one knows exactly when – that tradition evolved into the tradition of families finding a log in the woods, covering it with a blanket, and caring for it inside the house until it was time for Tió to “give back” – now small gifts and the obvious choice of turrón, instead of warmth.” – NPR
In different regions, you may see these referred to as Cagatio, Cagatillo, Cacatio, Caca Tio, or Cago Tio. Whatever the Cago Tio origin, it is firmly rooted in Catalan Christmas traditions now. I must admit, there’s a part of me that is a little jealous. I want a Caga Tio in my apartment. I’m pretty sure I could take care of it properly…it actually seems easier than watering and trimming a Christmas tree!
But Wait…There’s More Poopy Catalan Christmas Traditions
Surprisingly this isn’t the only ‘Christmas cleanse’ in Catalonia. Meet the ever-popular, or should I say poop-ular, Caganer.
What is a Caganer?
El Caganer literally means “the shitter”…so here we go again. It is a small figurine of a man, normally a peasant. The man is wearing peasant clothing and the traditional Barretina red hat. He is depicted in a squatting position with his pants down so you can see his bum. And behind him…behind him is a little pile of poo on the ground.
Why are you surprised…you should be used to this by now.
Caganer and Christmas Tradition
The Caganer is typically placed in the traditional nativity scene in all Catalan homes. It’s a little game of hide ‘n seek in a way. The Caganer is ‘hidden’ in the nativity scene and children try to find it. The caganer typically ‘moves around’ during the Christmas season, so it is a continuous game of hide and seek. It is thought that having the Caganer in the nativity scene is a sign of good luck; if you don’t have it, then be ready for some bad luck in the coming year!
I know it seems odd to have a man pooping next to the 3 wise men, but there is some history to this one. It is believed to have entered the nativity scene by the late 17th or early 18th century, during the Baroque period. People believed that the caganer’s ‘deposit’ fertilized the ground of the nativity scene which ensured the nativity scene for the following year, and with it, the health and peace of mind.
In this culture where farming is important, poop is also important; it fertilizes the fields. Maybe that’s why it has turned into a symbol of good luck and productivity.
Over the years, the peasant Caganer has evolved into pop culture and has moved beyond simply Christmas. All over Catalonia, you will find stores with popular figures like world leaders, cartoon characters, celebrities, musicians, sporting figures, and ones that are specific to regions or professions.
I went to a Caganer workshop that has been operating for 2 generations and 25 years in Torroella de Montgrí to learn more about the production. Marc the son in charge of production explained, “We used to create the entire nativity scene, but now just focus on caganers. We sell them to the shops as souvenirs.”
I was surprised to learn that all of the figurines are handmade. The molds are made and maintained, and each figure is painted by hand.
Marc actually put us to work painting our very own Caganer fisherman figurine so we could see what it was like. It was a tedious process that takes the professionals a short time to finish, but for us took over an hour to paint the little guy! We even were able to make the little poop pile and glue it to the base in just the right spot!
As you walk around the workshop, you will see every pop culture Caganer imaginable. I saw Elton John, R2D2, Harry Potter, Trump, Putin, Marilyn Monroe, the Statue of Liberty, and even the Pope himself squatting.
Order Your Own Caganer!
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Have a Poopy Christmas!
I think the coolest part about these traditions is that while you have likely read this story and the word “why?” was going through your head the whole time, the Catalans don’t ask why. As my friend Gemma explained it to me and saw my confused and horrified reaction, she apologetically said, “We never realized how weird it was.”
They just embrace and accept it.
I suppose it’s much like we have embraced and accepted a fat man with flying reindeer coming down a chimney – essentially breaking into our homes. Maybe our American Santa Clause Christmas and the Pooping Christmas Log are more similar than you think. And who says that poop isn’t good luck…it sure is in Catalonia.