Whenever I am able to spend a bit of time in a European city over the holidays, I make a point to learn more about the traditions unique to the area. Whether it's Sinterklaas, arriving on a steamboat from Iberia, or Samichlaus and his sidekick, Schmutzli, visiting Switzerland -- each culture spins an interesting tale.
One of my favorite stories belongs to the Spanish region of Catalonia. In Catalan Christmas tradition, the Caga Tió, or "shit log" is the cornerstone of the holiday season. Beginning in early December, near the Feast of The Immaculate Conception, the Caga Tió appears as a small piece of wood with a happy face painted on it, and two front legs. It's kept as a pet throughout the next month as children give it a little bit to "eat" every night -- the same way Americans might leave cookies out for Santa and the elves. Kids usually cover the Caga Tió with a blanket so he isn't cold at night, and coddle him throughout the days leading up to the holiday. If parents are particularly enthusiastic about the holiday, the replace the log every few days so that he's able to grow larger and larger with tender love and care.
On Christmas Eve, the log is finally fully grown, is put into the fireplace and ordered to "poo" out all the presents, while kids beat him with sticks to persuade him to drop his load of Christmas goodies. The accompanying song only adds to the sentiment of the celebration:
avellanes i mató,
si no cagues bé
et daré un cop de bastó.
hazelnuts and cottage cheese,
if you don't poop well,
I'll hit you with a stick,
Kids are elated to find that the log leaves small gifts like candies, small toys, coins and figs behind, even gifting larger toys if they are lucky (and if their parents pull off the illusion of presents appearing under the log).
As one of the most beloved figures in Catalan tradition, the Caga Tió tradition is meant to symbolize the fertilization of abundant crops for the next year, but perhaps something was lost in translation.
Next week, as St. Nicholas comes to town around the world, I'll be arriving into the Netherlands, along with Zwarte Piet -- but that's a tale for next time.
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