So, a question: how often do you express gratitude for your bodily functions?
The Catalonians of Spain do so with such enthusiasm that they incorporate it into their holiday celebrations.
When we were in Barcelona, capital of the Spanish region of Catalonia, we discovered two unique Catalonian traditions: the Caganer, represented by a squatting, pooping figurine, and Caga Tío, which is sort of like Santa Claus but with a quirky twist.
First, Caga Tío: the official name is Tió de Nadal (Catalan for “Christmas Log”), with tío being the Catalan word for “trunk” or “log” and Nadal meaning “Christmas.” Tió de Nadal also has a popular nickname, Caga Tío, which means meaning “shitting log” or “poo log.” I shit you not. The word caga may sound familiar, because it’s similar to caca, the Spanish word for “poop.” Some locals just call the log Tío. Catalonians speak both Spanish and Catalan, and in Spanish tío means “uncle,” so when you consider that, the name takes on an additional meaning (Uncle Poop).
Traditionally, Catalonians would go into the woods and find a sturdy log that would then become Caga Tío. These days, most people purchase a ready-made Tío from the market. More often than not he will have stick legs and a smiling face painted on one end, and he also wears a red sock hat, the traditional Catalan barretina.
Caga Tío is brought into the home and treated like an important guest. He’s covered with a blanket so that he doesn’t get cold, and, starting on December 8, which is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the official beginning of the Christmas season in Spain, the children of the house are expected to care for him. They keep him warm and give him food, all with the hope that he will poop presents on Christmas Eve (or in some households, Christmas Day).
When Christmas arrives, it’s time for Caga Tío to repay the kindness that has been bestowed upon him. First, the children go into another room to pray that Tío will bring gifts; meanwhile, the adults place presents under his blanket. Then the children beat him with sticks while singing a song to him, all to ensure that he excretes gifts for them.
I saw various versions of the lyrics, but basically, the song has a menacing message that goes something like this:
shit nougats, hazelnuts and cheese;
if you don’t shit well, I’ll hit you with a stick.
The presents that Tío typically expels are candies and torrons (nougat sweets), as well as other little gifts. When these have been “passed,” Caga Tio will finish by pooping a herring, garlic, or onion, or urinating (represented by a bowl of water). Traditionally, the log was then burned, providing warmth to the family, and the ashes were then spread on the farm to promote fertility, but I’m not sure how common the practice is today.
Another holiday tradition that has a poo theme is the Caganer, a porcelain figurine that represents a farmer hoping for a bountiful year. He is positioned in a squatting position with a small mound of poop on the ground behind him. The Caganer figure is so valued by Catalans that it is included as part of the nativity scene alongside Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, and superstition has it that not placing a Caganer amongst these sacred figures will bring a person bad luck. The belief is that the Caganer is fertilizing the holy ground on which Jesus lays, thus ensuring a prosperous harvest in the coming year. In general, he also symbolizes luck and joy.
We saw Caganers of many famous people, including President Obama, Papa Smurf, and Ghandi, and it’s considered an honor to have your own figurine. It’s also a reminder that, just like us commoners, even the most famous and powerful people poop.
In America, poop is something we cover up with scented bathroom sprays:
But in Catalonia, it’s a sign of a healthy and bountiful life and something to be celebrated. As a speech pathologist having worked with the elderly for many years, proper bowel function is a topic that many folks become obsessed with. It’s so important that nurses ask every shift, “Did you have a bowel movement today?” When your pipes don’t work right, your whole life goes to shit, so it’s not something we should take for granted!
Caga Tío also represents the beauty and importance of nature. Dale and I are unabashed tree huggers; we love forests, mountains, the ocean, and trees, which are among the most majestic objects in nature. Caga Tío resonated with us, and his ceramic figurine was one of the few souvenirs we bought in Europe:
He’s so darned cute:
It’s important to stress that these traditions are not meant to be sacrilegious or offensive. We met a fellow from Catalonia when we were doing the Camino and asked him about Caga Tío. He talked about the ritual with pride, saying that it’s a revered part of the Christmas season. Keep in mind that Catholoicism has strong roots in Spain, and even as Europe grows more and more secular, around 50% of Catalonians still identify as Catholic; however, pagans populated the Iberian Peninsula centuries before Christians did, and some of their nature-loving rituals persisted even after Christianity became the dominant religion. Caga Tío and Caganer are included alongside other Christmas traditions as a celebration of both human nature and the natural world.
So this holiday season, we don’t expect you to put a Santa hat on a smiling log and then tell your kids that it’s pooping presents, but we do encourage you to celebrate with unabashed enthusiasm the beauty of life and the nature of being human!