Trying to explain the “caga tió” politely, and other Catalan Christmas traditions

In the last few weeks I have managed not to explain very well the tradition of the tió to various incredulous-looking British people. So I am giving it another go here.

Instead of having presents delivered by Father Christmas, in Catalonia presents are produced by the Yule Log, which we call “tió”. Except produced is too polite a word. In the run-up to Christmas the tió is kept warm wrapped up in a blanket and fed very enthusiastically every night by the children of the house. He eats and eats… and what goes in must go out somehow. And this is what happens on Christmas Eve. The children help him lighten his overfull belly by beating him with a stick as they sing a song along the lines of “Tió, Tió, caga torró, força i bo, pel naixement de Nostre Senyor, si no vols cagar et donare un cop de bastó”. This means, literally, “Log, Log, shit nougat, plenty and good, for the birth of Our Lord. If you don’t want to shit I will hit you with a stick”. Each family has their own version of this song… but what they all have in common is that they ask the tió to poop nougat (or “torró”). There is no polite version.

After the singing the kids lift up the blanket, to find that the tió has excreted torrons, presents and sometimes bits coal to the kids who have not behaved very well in the run-up to Christmas. Except it is usually coal made out of sugar.

Tions vary, at my parents’ home it has always been a large hollow cork oak bark where presents could be stuffed and kept reasonably safe from over-enthusiasting beatings. This is the little fellow we have at home… being fed a not entirely traditional diet, which hopefully will not impede his performance.

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And this is the glorious tió that was used in the Catalans UK Christmas party in London. One of the best I’ve ever seen, wearing the traditional Catalan hat (called “barretina”) and espardrilles (or “espardenyes”).

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For some reason the Catalans give fully into their scatological humour over Christmas, perhaps there is a need to balance the holiness of the season with a bit of earthiness. In most houses you’ll find a Nativity scene with, as you’d expect, the Virgin Mary, St Joseph, the ox and the mule, the three wise men, the angels… and the shepherds. There is always, more or less tucked away, a shepherd who needs to do his business there and then, and we all know him as “el caganer”, which you can choose to translate as “the shitter” or “the defecator”. And the product of his efforts is usually displayed for all to see.

I hasten to add that most of our other Christmas traditions are unlikely to cause embarrassment. Specially the food.

Very Merry Christmas to you all and enjoy whichever way you choose to celebrate or not!

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3 thoughts on “Trying to explain the “caga tió” politely, and other Catalan Christmas traditions

  1. Haha, just read this. Yes, I’ve tried to explain those traditions to Brits too, and I’m not even Catalan. I remember visiting Girona Cathedral (I think it was) and there was a Nativity scene, possibly more than one, and there behind the stable was the caganer.

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