Christmas is celebrated in its own unique way all across the world, with countless different traditions and cultures holding its own distinctive celebrations for the festive season. Catalonia is a region of Spain famed across the globe for its proud traditions, and at Christmas time there are certainly some surprising and special celebrations. These are an insight into what the festive holidays look like for the typical Catalan person, that you could maybe even incorporate into your own household this year.
Feast of the Immaculate Conception
For Catalonians and the rest of Spain alike, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Día de la Inmaculada Concepción) is generally considered as the start of Christmas. Taking place on the 8th of December, this date is when they will start to put up the Christmas decorations. But it is also a celebration that is very important to people of Roman Catholic faith in Catalonia – it is the day that they celebrate the ‘miraculous conception’ of the Virgin Mary. While there are no traditional events that take place on this day, this national holiday is taken as a day to spend time with family, go to church, or spend time wandering the Christmas markets and admiring the Christmas lights.
A refreshing aspect of the day of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is that, in general, the shops are shut for the day. So, there are no frantic shoppers hunting for last minute gifts, instead the day is focused on spending time with family and getting into the festive spirit.
The Nativity scene home decorations
As is the case in many countries across the globe, the Nativity scene, or pessebre in Catalan, is a central feature of the Christmas decoration of Catalan homes during the festive season. The Nativity scene is assembled both in homes and on the streets as part of the celebrations for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, something that the whole family come together to create. The scene depicts the stable in Bethlehem where the Baby Jesus was born, and to make the scene as authentic as possible, people will even go out to find real moss for the floor of the Nativity.
The manger of the scene remains empty until the 24th of December, when the baby Jesus is placed. The other characters of the nativity scene surround Him, including Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men, angels and farm animals. There is however an additional character, that unless you’ve spent time in Catalonia, will most likely have never come across in nativity scenes elsewhere…
Caganer of the Nativity scene
A seemingly outrageous figure of the traditional biblical scene of the Nativity, but one that is an essential part of the Catalan pessebre, is that of the Caganer. The Caganer is depicted as a peasant, dressed in the typical Catalan red cap and can be found hidden in the Nativity scene crudely with his trousers down, defecating in the stable. This peculiar character can only be found in Catalonia, remaining an essential part of the decoration.
The tradition of placing this character within the traditional Nativity scene is believed to have begun by the late 17th or early 18th century, and his significance is that his faeces is said to fertilize the earth and ensure a good harvest for the year ahead. He is also said to bring good luck for the new year. Nowadays, the caganer is more of a satirical figurine for Catalan people, and the model is sold on the Christmas markets with the faces of politicians and celebrities on for fun.
Traditional foods of the Christmas dinner on the 24th
Unlike in countries like the UK and United States, Christmas dinner is eaten on Christmas Eve in Catalonia instead of on the 25th of December. As is the case for many other aspects of Catalan culture, the food eaten for the main Christmas meal differs greatly from the rest of Spain. The traditional dish for starters in Catalonia is escudella de galets, a soup made of big pasta shells that are sometimes stuffed with meatballs. The broth for the soup is produced when boiling the meat that is used for the main course, the carn d’olla. Literally meaning ‘the meat of the pot’, the main dish is a mixture of meats, a large meatball and a variety of winter vegetables. This heart, slow-cook meat stew dates all the way back to the 14th century, and still remains the star of the show on the Catalan Christmas dinner table.
In terms of sweet treats, don’t expect to find any Christmas puddings in Catalonia! Instead, one of the beloved desserts here is torrons, which are made from several different varieties, often including nougat, almonds, marzipan, chocolate, eggs and honey. They can be brittle, made with toasted nuts and nougat, or soft and comprised of egg yolks and marzipan. Another Christmas delicacy is neules, thin, crunchy rolled biscuits that are made from flour, butter, sugar, honey and cinnamon, sometimes with a slight lemon flavouring too. They are often served alongside torró, and are dipped into a glass of cava.
Another outrageous figure to some other cultures, but a standard feature of every Catalan household. Caga Tió, meaning quite literally ‘Poo Log’ is a small, wooden log painted with a big smiley face, dressed in the traditional red Catalan hat – called the Barretina. It is brought out on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, and the idea is that the children of the household will ‘look after’ it, until Christmas Eve. The children care for Caga Tió by covering him with a blanket to make sure that he is warm, and they feed him Torró every evening, to ensure that he is nice and full so that he will ‘poo out’ their presents on Christmas Eve! The idea is the more that they feed him, the more presents he will produce for them for Christmas.
Usually after eating their main meal on Christmas Eve, the children will start to hit the log with sticks, while singing a special song in the hope that he will give them their presents. Once the song has finished, the blanket is removed from the log, after weeks of excited anticipation, and the children can open their presents. Although seemingly bizarre to those used to the humble Christmas tree and some tinsel, both the Caga Tió and Caganer are not intended to be disrespectful to any religious groups. They are simply traditions that are symbolic to those in Catalonia of the Christmas period.
Sandra Roig is Marketing Director at AB Apartment Barcelona. AB Apartment Barcelona is an apartment rental agency offering over one thousand short and long term apartments across Barcelona.