Celebrating Christmas in Catalonia

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Tió de Nadal, Christmas Log
Tió de Nadal, Christmas Log

One of the best things about being a student in Barcelona is the opportunity to experience the blending of two cultures in one place. Christmas is an important festival in many parts of the world and it’s wonderful to celebrate and observe the unique traditions of both Spain and Catalonia. If you want to understand more about the customs and celebrations happening in Barcelona around the holidays, read on.

When does Christmas begin in Catalonia?

December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is when the Christmas kick-off begins. Around this time is when decorations and lights will be put up, the nativity scenes installed and the Tió de Nadal introduced.

Who is the Caganer?

The Caganer is a popular character in the Catalan nativity scene
The Caganer is a popular character in the Catalan nativity scene, photo via Flickr

The pessebre (nativity scene) is a predominant feature of Christmas decorations around Catalonia. The stable where Jesus was born is assembled by families together and always include the figures of Mary, Joseph, animals and the baby Jesus who is placed in the manger on the 24th of December. It is also quite common to see larger versions of the town of Bethlehem and there are even some towns that have a real-life recreation of the scene with people and animals.

The one character that you will find solely in Catalonia, however, is the caganer (the crapper). Depicted as a peasant, dressed in a typical Catalan red cap, he can be found hidden in the nativity scene with his pants down, taking a poop. Why does he appear like this? It’s said that his feces are fertilizing the earth and his appearance on the scene ensures a prosperous new year. When wandering through a Catalan Christmas market, you’ll surely find these figurines as well as versions of celebrities, politicians and other public figures.

Who is Caga Tió?

Children beating the Tioó de Nadal
Children beating the Tioó de Nadal

Commonly confused for the Spanish tío which means uncle, the Tió de Nadal (Christmas Log) as he is officially called, is another Christmas character that only appears in Catalonia. A log with a large smiling face and a red barretina cap, he is introduced into the home on December 8th, given a blanket to keep him warm and fed each night to fatten him up. After the dinner on Christmas Eve, the children sing a song while beating him with a stick, reach under the blanket to find presents and sweets, similar to what children receive from Santa Claus.

How do people celebrate Christmas in Catalonia?

Sweets

It’s typical to see large displays of sweets set up in shops I anticipation for the holiday season. Turrón is a nougat type confection usually crafted with almonds. There is also plenty of marzipan and yema tostada (toasted egg yolk). Polvorones are also a traditional, “dusty” (polvo means dust) sweet made from almond paste.

Christmas Eve
Escudella de galets, the typical Christmas Eve soup
Escudella de galets, the typical Christmas Eve soup

The 24th of December is the important night where the family gets together for their Christmas meal. The dish in Catalonia is escudella de galets which a soup featuring large snail-shaped pasta. The soup is made from the broth that comes from boiling the meat that is served as the main course- the carn d’olla. This meal is usually accompanied by small tapas, jamón, red wine and cava (Catalan sparkling wine). Once the dinner is over, people will exchange gifts, beat the Tió de Nadal and sing Christmas songs.

Christmas Day

This day is usually a day for relaxation and spending time with the family. As in most other places, the focus is mostly on eating well. Some people will eat a roast turkey, but it really depends on the family. The tradition of Santa Claus has also arrived in some families, so some people will also exchange gifts.

Feast of Sant Esteban

The 26th of December is a feast day that occurs only around Catalonia. On this day people eat cannelloni that are made with the leftover meat from the Christmas meals.

Feast of Los Santos Inocentes

The Spanish equivalent of April Fools Day is celebrated on December 28th in Catalonia and in the rest of Spain. Newspapers and television channels will create fake reports while everyone plays practical jokes on each other. It’s common for kids to pin paper puppets on each other’s backs and call out “¡inocente!” when they’ve successfully played a trick on someone.

New Year’s Eve

In Spain, it is tradition to ring in the New Year with close family and friends. After sharing a large dinner together, everyone will turn to the TV to watch the countdown. Once the clock starts chiming, you’ll see a flurry of action as everyone attempts (usually unsuccessfully) to eat one grape for each toll. If you manage to eat all twelve grapes, you’ll have good luck for the rest of the year. Once everyone shares their well-wishes, the younger people will go out to celebrate with their friends. In Catalonia, it’s said that wearing red underwear on this night will bring you good luck in your love life.

Feast of the Three Kings

Roscón de Reyes
Roscón de Reyes, photo via La Vanguardia

In Spain and in Catalonia, the day that children anticipate throughout the entire Christmas season is the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day. On the 5th of January, the large procession of the Kings arrives in Barcelona. The parade winds its way around the city, the Kings throwing candy and little gifts to eager children. These kings represents the ones that brought gold, myrrh and frankincense.

The 6th of January is officially the feast day and the day children open their presents. Families get together again for a large lunch and for dessert, they eat a ring-shaped cake called Roscón de Reyes. Hidden inside the cake are a small figurine of a king and a dry green bean. Everyone checks their piece once the cake is served, hoping for the lucky figure of the king, which will make them king for a day and will have a crown to wear. The unlucky one who gets the bean will have to pay for the cake!

As you can see, there is much celebration throughout the month of December and beginning of January. After the Feast of the Three Kings, children go back to school, decorations are taken down and the rebajas (sales) begin. It’s just another year until the celebrations begin again.

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