10 January 2007

The piece of firewood that poops

I apologize, first and foremost, for leaving the December 23 entry with such a cliffhanger. For all this blog knows, my poor family might still be stuck in transit on their winding way to Barcelona.

But no, they arrived only one day late, a little the worse for wear (i.e., smellier than they wanted to be), but otherwise fine and everyone separately admitting to me that it had actually been kinda fun, in a comedy of errors and chasing around airports kind of way.

Their luggage, on the other hand, took almost a week to arrive, which meant no presents, and no clothes to change into. The latter might have been even more important than the former, considering that the holidays just aren't the same if you're wearing someone else's underwear, you know? Between my luggage, and a generous pile of loaner clothing from M's family, they managed to make it through without having to buy new wardrobes.

We had a grand time in that big Catalan farmhouse, despite the no presents thing. M's parents and grandmother drove up for the day (sister/brother-in-law and nieces were in Senegal for Christmas), and we ate a huge catered meal of Catalan food American-style, and then? We made the log poop.

Yep, it's what the Catalans do at Christmas, and this log is called the "Tió de Nadal." It's a piece of firewood with a little face painted on it, and a Catalan hat, and you take turns to hit it with a stick while singing a song that asks it to poop presents, and then while you're not looking or going on a little stroll around the house, someone hides a present under the blanket covering the rear end of the log, and when you get back you look to see what it pooped for you.

I am NOT kidding!

On the news, they were even talking about a government-sponsored program by which you can trade in your santa claus for a tió, or get a rebate for buying the tió instead of the santa.

In preparation for my family's arrival, I made a nice little document with articles and pictures explaining all of the various Catalan Christmas traditions, Catalan Christmas vocabulary, and Christmas songs. Here is the article about the tió:

The Christmas “log,” or more accurately “piece of firewood,” is one of the most unique Catalan traditions. Related to the Christmas tree and to other European traditions of the Christmas hearth, the tió is a sturdy piece of wood that is decorated with a face and often a Catalan hat and little stick legs. On Christmas day, children (and not-quite children!) take turns beating the log with a stick and singing songs meant to encourage the log to poop out some presents. Originally, the “present” was the fire, as the rear end of the log itself was actually lit and destined for warming the home on Christmas. Nowadays, the tió is never set on fire, but is instead “fed” with vegetables and other foods (the kinds of food, conveniently, that children don’t like) during the days leading up to Christmas, so that it will have something to digest into gifts!

The colloquial name for this tradition, the “Caga Tió,” which is a command meaning “Poop, log!”, comes from the songs that are sung and which almost always begin with this phrase. Before Christmas dinner, the tió is covered with a blanket so that he won’t be cold, and then, poor thing, he is whacked with a stick while the songs are sung. Then the child or children march around the house while the adults hide sweets and small gifts under the blanket. When the child returns, the tió has delivered his surprise!

The little rhymes are often particular to regions, towns, or even homes, and can be improvised on the spot. An examples of the song is:

Tió de Nadal,
dóna torrons, i raja vi blanc.
No ens dónis arengades que són massa salades.
Caga tió, si no, et donaré un cop de bastó.
(Christmas tió,
give us torrons [Christmas sweets], and pour out wine.
Don’t give us sardines because they’re too salty.
Poop tió, if you don’t, I’ll whack you with my stick.)

It might be one of those things you have to experience before it makes any sense. Early in our relationship, when M explained to me what his family did on Christmas, I just sort of nodded and pretended I understood, assuming SOMEthing had been lost in translation. I didn't want to point out any faults in his English, and surely he was mistranslating "log" for "tree" and, oh I don't know, "poop" for ummm...something else? Polite girlfriend that I was, I just chalked it up to cultural miscommunication. But now I know, and so does my family, that it's all true! They even made an outstanding effort to sing the songs in Catalan. And for their efforts they got candy and little trinkets and in some cases jingle bell raindeer headbands.

My little nephew was most puzzled as to the whole affair, but eventually got used to the stick-whacking part, and after we had put it all away, started wandering around and splaying his hands in the air in the way that he has, saying "ere dit go?"

Apart from the pooped presents, one of my favorite memories of that day was singing carols with all of us around the table. We taught everyone some Catalan carols, including a beautiful lullaby one and "Fum, fum, fum." (Did you know that was Catalan? I bet you didn't!) And by gum, they were singing them in perfect four-part harmony by the second time around.

Oh, I love Christmas traditions. It's so fun to get new ones!

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