lunes, 26 de diciembre de 2011

Oranges, sunglasses and stick-wielding children - Happy Christmas Catalan style

Christmas Eve, and the sunglasses are still on in Tarragona. Throngs of shoppers sporting Gucci and D & G eyewear strut the main street, the Rambla Nova, on the hunt for festive paraphernalia. Eyeing them from the tables at nearby pavement cafés are the owners of designer label sheepskins and chic leather boots. The December sun bounces off the polished paving stones decorating the central walkway of the Rambla, temporarily blinding me. I tut at my forgetfulness and vow never again to go Christmas shopping without what is necessarily de rigueur winter gear in Tarragona. I glance up at the temperature being flashed from a sign outside a chemist’s to my right: 17º C. If this were Belfast, the locals would be out in shorts and tee-shirts.

            Plump juicy fruit hangs from the branches of trees lining the main street. Last time I looked the oranges were wan and uninviting. Since then the mid-winter sun has fattened and ripened them. But nobody, except me, seems interested in the fruit; they are all engaged in choosing… a log that shits presents. They are purchasing a caga tió, my latest acquaintance in my travels through Catalan culture. Dozens of these unconvincing props are on sale in the Christmas fair on the Rambla. I mill around one of the stalls peering at them from different angles. My friend Mercè looks slightly shamefaced when I ask her about their purpose. Suppressing a smile she answers,
Children beat them with a stick until they shit presents.
They beat them? You mean they literally beat the crap out of them?
Yes, this is how the song goes:
Caga tió –Shit tió
ametlles i torró
 –almonds and turrón*
si no vols cagar
 –if you don’t shit
et donaré un cop de bastó
 –I will beat you with a stick
Caga tió! – Shit tió
I glance down at the trusting little face painted on the log and empathise, wondering whether the smile will remain as fixed while the blows are raining down on it.          

Defecation also plays a crucial role in Catalan Nativity scenes. Scan the setting and you will find el caganer (literally the “shitter”) crouching behind a bush or in a quiet corner away from the crib holding the baby Jesus. The caganer is a popular rustic figure, usually a shepherd, caught with his trousers down and a satisfied grin on his face. Under his rear, in a neatly laid heap on the ground, is the reason for his satisfaction. More recently, makers of the caganer have branched out into the modern world. Now it is not uncommon to see the caganers metamorphosed into the features of well-known politicians and personalities such as Obama, Shakira and even Prince William and Kate Middleton … taking a crap in the background of the Nativity Scene.

The origins of this tradition date back to the 17th or 18th century and explanations are varied. Most indicate that he is a figure of fun and humour, particularly for children. I, however, would like to think that the caganer is representative of that tendency within Spain which has a healthy disregard for religious sobriety. El caganer, I suppose, is whatever you want him to be. 
 It’s an immense relief to discover that Christmas is quite a low-key affair in Catalonia compared to the full-on-in-your-face-assault in Belfast. I didn’t hear my first Christmas Carol until 6th December, which is about the time Santa Claus began swaggering up and down in front of the Corte Inglés department store, sweating profusely in his red and white gear and heralding in another wave of consumerism. However, since the shops seem to be crowded anyway most of the time and queues are generally prevalent here, I have noticed only a subtle difference in crowd volume with the arrival of the festive season, not unlike the subtle difference in temperature between summer and winter in Ireland.
Still, there’s a catch. While the agony ends back home on 1st January with a return to a renewed appreciation of what passes for normal life, the festivities here drag on until 6th January. I blame the Three Kings. Following that star they turned up late with their presents. And, true to tradition, Catalans wait for the Kings to arrive on 6th, the BIG pressie day. Those children who didn’t beat the caga tiò hard enough and were disappointed with whatever presents he shit will be eagerly awaiting the arrival of royalty from the east. Let’s hope that the gifts satisfy because, if not, the mini Catalans will have had plenty of time to become very adept at wielding those sticks in the 12-day interim between Christmas Day and the Epiphany.
              In the meantime we will have had almost two weeks to indulge ourselves with daily banquets of abundant fare. The festivities kicked off with dinner on Christmas Eve, which ended well after midnight. Christmas Day saw the table groan again under the weight of seafood, with a main course of prawns, elvers and cannelloni; turkey is not as popular here as it is back home. Dessert, if we could manage it, was Christmas Log. One that was eaten, not beaten. Afterwards the turrón* was served with champagne. Needless to say, few of us managed to leave an empty plate – we were still stuffed from our Christmas Eve midnight feast.
On New Year’s Eve we will gather around the table again at midnight, this time to participate in the ritual of the 12 grapes. With each stroke of the clock, signalling the death of the old year, all guests eat a grape. Tradition demands that in these twelve seconds we each chew and swallow twelve grapes and wash them down with a mouthful of champagne. This year I am fortunate to live in the vicinity of the cathedral and, unlike millions of others, won’t have to listen to the bells toll via television or radio. I only have to open the window to hear the real thing.

* Turrón is something of a cross between fudge and nougat.

1 comentario:

Douglas dijo...

Defecation as a form of Christmas celebration sounds good to me. Cava or champagne? Or perhaps xampany?