Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas, New Year and King's Day Traditions in Spain / Tradiciones de Navidad, Nuevo Año y Reyes en España

Today is the 27th of December. I've had a very nice holiday season so far and am looking forward to more of the same. Christmas, St. Stephens Day (the 26th, which is a bank holiday in Catalonia) and today have all been sunny and cool here in Barcelona -- highs around 16º C (60º F), lows around 5º C (40º F). On Monday I will head out to Bilbao for 5 days and return just in time for Kings Day. Then, it's back to work on the 7th.
This is my eighth holiday season in Spain, so far, and in my opinion, it's a great time of year to be here. While I admit that I'm prejudiced and think any time of year in Spain is great, for me this one is definitely a highlight. I've been lucky enough to have experienced the season not only in Barcelona, but also in Madrid, Valenica, Sevilla, Salamanca, Sevilla and Burgos.
Spain's holiday season begins in early December and doesn't end until January 7th, the day after Kings Day. Things more or less kick-off with the holidays of Constitution Day and the Immaculate Conception, on December 6th and 8th respectively. By this time Spanish towns and cities are decorated with holiday lights and gift shopping for Kings Day is in full swing. Two widespread traditions soon follow: public Christmas markets and life sized nativity scenes.
The public Christmas markets are held in plazas throughout the country. Stalls are set-up to sell crafts, decorations, sweets, candles, fruits, nuts and flowers. Colorfully decorated Christmas trees are erected and the Three Kings (Los Reyes Magos) are usually available to receive letters with gift requests from children. Indeed, these three exotic looking gentlemen are not only seen at Christmas markets, but also at shopping centers, schools, on television, etc. And, of course, the Three Kings are also included in nativity scenes.
The life sized Nativity Scenes (called Belens in Spanish, which translates as Bethlehems, in Catalan they are called Pesebres), are usually constructed near the town hall. Barcelona's is always in front of city hall in Plaza Sant Juame. On the subject of Nativity Scenes in Barcelona, Catalonia has a tradition of adding its own unique character to the scene: El Caganer.
Caganer translates as "the defecator" or, more commonly, "the crapper." This interesting little figure does his business on the sidelines of the Nativity Scene -- for example, behind a tree or under a bush. Indeed, it can be a bit of a game to find the little fellow in some of the Nativity Scenes on display. El Caganer has been around since at least the 17th century. Explanations I have heard for this tradition include:
  • he originated among the working classes in order to poke fun at the then new tradition of Nativity Scenes among the upper middle class;

  • he is fertilizing the earth;

  • his activity causes us to reflect on the humanity of Jesus, because all people have to defecate;
  • it is a comment on equality, because again, all people have to defecate, regardless of origin, race, gender, etc.
Regardless of how and why the tradition came to exist, today the popular figures can be bought at Christmas markets, seen in homes or in public displays and can be male, female, a traditional looking Catalan or an effigy of a famous individual. Zapatero and Henry Thierry are particularly popular caganers this year.
This is not the only scatological Christmas tradition in Catalonia, as there is also El Caga Tío, or the Pooping Log. (In Spanish it is called, El Caga Tronca.) El Caga Tío is a paper mache "yule log" stuffed with candy. On Christmas Eve children beat the log with sticks until it breaks open to "poop" it's contents. While beating the log children sing traditional songs, usually with a refrain along the lines of, "Poop, log, poop!"
Little gifts and treats are given on Christmas Eve throughout Spain, which is called La Noche Buena (the Good Night), but the major gift giving day is El Día de Los Reyes. (This literally translates as Kings Day, but is more commonly known in English as Epiphany or Twelfth Night.)
The Three Kings, therefore, are especially important to Spanish children, because they are the ones who bring presents. The Kings are known as Melchor, Gaspar and Balthazar, and represent Europe, Arabia and Africa. Children write letters to the Three Kings, visit them at shopping centers and leave food out for them on the night of January 5th. Instead of Christmas parades, Spain has Kings Parades, which are traditionally held at sunset on the 5th -- and the Kings don't use reindeer, but camels! Then on January 6th, kids wake up to find gifts left by Los Reyes Magos -- and on January 7th, New Year sales finally begin!
Santa Claus, or Papa Noel as he is known here, is around, too, but in a less significant sense. In fact, he is a rather recent addition brought on by Hollywood and commercial interests.
Of course, in-between Christmas and Kings Day comes New Year's Day. New Year's Eve is called Noche Vieja (Old Night) and is celebrated with street parties and by swallowing 12 grapes at midnight, one for each toll of the bell, along with a nice bottle of cava.
Felices fiestas amig@s,
P.S. This is my 100th post!


M said...

Is that true? I am dying that is so funny. ;)

Happy new year to you, too! And I hope you had a wonderful Christmas.


Carloz said...

Thanks, M, my Christmas was great. Hope yours was, too.

Yes, it's all true, including the Caganer and Caga Tío, which are true Catalan traditions.

Hey, I forgot to write about Tifas, which are sweet "piles" that parents in Catalunya can buy to give to naughty children on Kings Day. These are candies and pastries that look to me like dog droppings. To add a bit of realism, there is usually a sugar-spun fly on top!

Felice año nuevo,


Carloz said...

I found an old news article about a bit of caganer controversy:

Defecating Figurines Part of Holiday

Associated Press Writer

January 8, 2002, 12:45 PM EST

BARCELONA, Spain -- Placing statuettes of defecating people in Nativity scenes is a Christmastime tradition so old and so strong in Spain's Catalonia region that even the Roman Catholic Church here doesn't dare try to ban it.

When an exhibit of the figurines in a California museum sparked an angry denunciation from a Catholic group in the United States, Catalonians who cherish the tradition came ardently to its defense.

"Unfortunately, there are intolerant people who are offended by any little thing," Josep Maria Joan, director of the Toy Museum of Catalonia, said Monday. His museum has a permanent collection of the figurines, known as caganers.

Spanish artist Antoni Miralda's exposition "Poetical Gut" at Copia, a food, wine and arts museum in Napa, Calif., features ceramic figurines of the pope, nuns and angels with their pants down, squatting over their bowel movements.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a 350,000-member group based in New York, has written to the museum's board of trustees to say it finds the show offensive.

"When it's degrading, everybody knows it except the spin doctors who run the museums," the group's president, William Donohue, said Sunday.

In a tradition that dates back to the 18th century, Catalonians hide caganers in Christmas Nativity scenes and invite friends over to try to find them. The figures symbolize fertilization and the hope for prosperity in the coming year, according to Joan.

"It's really only a game," he said. "The caganer is not supposed to steal Jesus' spotlight in the manger scene. But it's logical that when traditions like this are exported they can be misunderstood."

An official with the Cultural Heritage department of the Barcelona Roman Catholic diocese, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the tradition as a harmless game for children and indicated the church has no plans to oppose it.

Although the traditional caganer resembles a red-capped Catalonian peasant, Miralda is not the first to depict public figures. Since the 1940s, Catalonians have been making modern renditions of the caganer -- including, recently, Osama bin Laden.

For Marti Torrent, founder of the 70-member Association of Friends of the Caganer, the meaning goes deeper than child's play.

To him, the caganer's act symbolizes "the fertilization of the earth" and pride in the land of Catalonia, whose inhabitants won the right to speak their own language and govern themselves after the 1939-75 Spanish dictatorship.

"I know that American society is more strict with its religious ideas than we are in Catalonia," said Torrent, 89, who added that what the caganer does is natural. "Even the king has to do it every day or at least every other day."
Copyright © 2002, The Associated Press

Wu said...

A quote from Robert Hughes' book BARCELONA: "The Catalan preoccupation with shit would make Sigmund Freud proud. No society offers more frequent and shining confirmation of his theories of anal retention."