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Cultural Christmas Traditions In Barcelona

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Christmas traditions: Traditional Nativity Scene
Traditional Nativity Scene
It is always interesting to get a local's perspective on customs and traditions There are many Christmas traditions that are specific to Spain or the Catalan region. I met up with Natalia Perez, who was born and raised just outside of Barcelona to find out how Christmas and New Year are celebrated in a traditional Catalan home.


When does the Christmas period really start in Spain?

In Spain we generally consider 08 December - the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, to be when Christmas begins. This is the date when we start to put up the Christmas decorations. In a lot of Spanish homes the nativity is one of the most important features of the decorations. It is something that all of my family enjoy building together. It is a scene depicting the stable in Bethlehem where the Baby Jesus is born. We go to the forest and find moss for the floor of the nativity and try to make it as authentic as possible.

A selection of typical Caganers
A selection of typical Caganers

The Caganer is a feature of the nativity scene that you only see in Cataluña. It is a figure of a Catalan man wearing traditional Catalan clothes. He is squatting with his trousers around his ankles and pooing! This may seem strange, but it is a custom from the 18th Century. His poo is seen as a sign of good luck as it fertilizes the earth and ensures a good harvest for the coming year.


Can you tell me about Caga Tió?

Typical Caga Tios
Typical Caga Tios

Caga Tió also comes out on 08 December. It is a small log with a smiley face, wearing the traditional red Catalan hat - the Barretina. The name Caga Tió means 'Poo Log'. Every day between 08 December and Christmas Eve, children look after the Caga Tió. They cover him with a blanket to make sure that he is warm and they feed him Turron every evening. This is to ensure that he is nice and full so that he will poo out lots of treats on Christmas Eve!

On Christmas Eve, after our large dinner (detailed below), dessert comes courtesy of Caga Tió. The children are given a stick with which they hit the Caga Tió. They sing a special song:

"Caga Tió avellanes I torró
Si no vols cagar
Et donanem un cop de pal."

This translates as:

"Caga Tió hazelnuts and turron
If you don't want to poo
We will hit you with a stick"

The children then reach inside the Caga Tio's blanket and find sweets and small toys. Similar to the sorts of treats that children receive in their stockings from Santa Claus.


What else happens on Christmas Eve?

Christmas Eve is a very important day for Spanish people. This is when we enjoy one of the most lavish meals of the Christmas period. In general the dinner begins with a soup, known as the Carn d'Olla. This is made with a large piece of meat that is cooked in stock for hours to ensure that it is thick and rich for a soup. The meat is then removed from the soup and Galets are added. These are large pieces of pasta that look like snail shells. This is our starter.

The meat that the soup was cooked with is then eaten as part of the main course. Most Spanish households eat this alongside various tapas dishes. These often include langoustines, jamon and eels- some of the most expensive foods. For this meal even the poorest of families splash out and buy what are considered to be the most luxurious items.

Traditional Turron
Traditional Turron

For dessert we enjoy the treats supplied to us by the Caga Tió. Turron is very popular during this period. The most traditional turron is nougat with almonds. Polvorones are also popular. These are sweets made from almond paste.

After dinner we go out and meet our friends. We visit other families to wish them a Happy Christmas, often bringing gifts such as legs of jamon (Cured Ham). During this period everybody drinks lots of Cava (Spanish equivalent of Champagne). Lots of families make special instruments- the Zambomba (like a drum), Pandereta (tambourine) and Botella de Anis (a specific glass bottle with a ridged edge to slide a stick up and down). These instruments are played whilst everybody sings Christmas carols (Billancicos) and gets tipsy!

Children often take their instruments and go from door to door, singing carols and receiving money or sweets.


What Are The Cultural Traditions On Christmas Day?

In more recent years Spanish families have started to have Christmas trees and children receive small presents from Santa Claus. However the larger presents are still provided by the Three Kings (see below).

A lot of the day is devoted to eating. In general, families eat roast turkey. Aside from this there are few set rules as to what is eaten on Christmas day. Tables are covered with various tapas, which may include dishes such as asparagus, jamon, seafood and nice salads. My Mum always makes her famous Zarzuela- a delicious seafood stew.


Before New Year's Eve, what other days are important in the Spanish Christmas?

On 26 December we celebrate the Feast of San Esteban. This is a feast day that takes place only in Cataluña. We enjoy a family dinner where we eat Canneloni. Catalan people are said to be very resourceful and disliking of waste. The Canneloni is made by hand and the rolls of pasta are filled with the meat that is leftover from the meals on Christmas Eve and Christmas day.

28 December is the Feast of Los Santos Innocentes. This is very similar to April Fools Day in the U.K. We play practical jokes on one another. The traditional joke is to stick a picture of the silhouette of a man onto people's backs in the hopes that they will not notice. The television and newspapers also take part in the fun. One year a newspaper printed a headline stating that the Prince of Spain had married Madonna!


What do you normally do on New Year's Eve and are their any special customs?

On New Year's Eve, in my family, we always ensure that we eat lentils for lunch. Each lentil represents a coin. It is said to ensure that you will have wealth and good luck in the coming year.

Unlike in other countries, going out to parties is preceded by a large dinner with the family. Just before midnight everybody turns on their televisions. Every channel broadcasts an image of the big clock in the main square in Madrid. As the clock chimes twelve times before midnight a grape is eaten with each chime. This is really difficult to do and there is lots of hilarity as people attempt to cram grapes into their mouths! It is said that if you succeed in eating all twelve grapes you will have good luck for the coming year. In Cataluña Cava is always drunk at midnight to toast the New Year.

After dinner I generally go out and meet up with my friends to go to bars, parties and clubs. It is tradition to wear red underwear on New Year's Eve as this is said to be good luck. It is often given as a gift.


Tell me about the Feast of the Three Kings.

The Three Kings
The Three Kings

This is a very important day in Spanish tradition. Especially for the children who have been waiting all through Christmas for the Three Kings to arrive bearing gifts! On the evening of 05 January there is a parade through Barcelona. People dressed up as the Three Kings hand out sweets to excited children. They represent the three Kings in the Bible who bring gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus.

At home children leave their shoes by the window to be filled by the Kings. They leave out water for the camels that the Kings have travelled on and food for the Kings. Prior to this date children have written their letters to the Three Kings telling them whether they have been 'good' or 'bad' and what they would like for Christmas. On the morning of 06 January children awake to see what gifts the kings have brought. They hope that they will receive everything that they have requested, rather than a lump of coal for being 'bad'.

This is followed by a large family lunch. Dessert is always El Roscon de Reyes. This is a ring shaped cake. Baked into the cake are two objects- a small figure of a king and a dry green bean. Once the cake is served everybody checks their portion in the hopes that they have the king and don't have the bean! The person who finds the king in their cake is crowned king for the day and wears a crown. The person who finds the bean in their piece of cake must pay for the dinner!

This day signifies the final day of the Christmas period. The next day, children go back to school to show off their new toys to their friends and for the grown-ups, the sales begin! After this Christmas decorations are taken down and the fun is over until next year.


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