On a crisp winter morning at the end of November, as I was guiding the Old City Free Walking Tour, we passed through the Christmas Fair of Saint Lucy. I got many a curious question as to who was that figurine defecating near the nativity scene, why children were beating a huge piece of wood with a stick and how come there was a giant Turkish head spitting out sweets for the children. Having lived here for so long, all these traditions seemed quite normal to me, but if visiting for the first time, they can appear to be quite exotic and bizarre. Let me brighten your day and explain about the unique customs you can expect when visiting Barcelona over the Christmas and New Year period.
Christmas here is a lot less commercial than in some other countries. Decorations are tasteful and shops lack that last minute present buying frenzy. Traditionally, there is no Santa Claus and presents are not given on the 25th of December. Spanish people remain a lot more faithful to the biblical interpretation and it is The Three Kings who leave the gifts for the children on the night of the 5th of January. Also here, in Catalonia, you can expect a yule log called El Tiò de Nadal to deliver your sweets and alcohol. He is a piece of wood with a smiling face and wears the traditional red barretina hat. You bring him into your home, keep him warm and feed him. Then, on Christmas Eve, you let the children beat him mercilessly with a stick. Singing a song, they encourage him to poo out all the desserts and maybe some presents. This definitely tops the Christmas stocking! You can see him being sold at the traditional Christmas fair of Santa Llùcia (in front of the Cathedral).
If wandering around this fair, you might stumble across La Carassa. This Turkish figure has a giant head and wears a turban. With his open mouth he fires out sweets to the crowds. Volunteers wheel him around the market where he is always surrounded by hoards of children collecting their candies. The tradition of these wooden heads that used to hang from under the organs of some Gothic churches goes way back, to the Spanish defeating the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto (1571). At Christmas, they used to spit out sweets. The heads have recently been removed as they were deemed to be a little politically incorrect. However, we can still catch a glimpse of this old tradition with this much beloved modern version.
Don’t miss the nativity scene while you are here. Always in front of the town hall, the set pieces change every year and the style is always different. One thing that will always be present however is El Caganer, a crouching shepherd with his trousers down and, yes, he is having a poo! It is an old tradition which symbolises good luck for the following harvest. Some also say it represents equality among mankind as every man has the same bodily functions.
Look out for some giant pasta sculptures on the streets. These are called galets and they are a link to the traditional Christmas dish of pasta soup. First, a variety of meat and vegetables are boiled (escudella i carn d’olla). When cooked, the liquid stock is separated. You add the galets and a meat ball to the stock and… presto, you have your starter dish: Sopa de galets. The meat and vegetables are then served separately. The next course is turkey (gall d’indi). Any left over meats will be used the following day to make delicious cannelloni. Finish off your meal with torró, a sweet rich desert made from almonds and honey that is sold soft of hard. My granny in-law always drinks a shot of anisette with it.
The next event occurs on the 28th of December which is the Day of the Holy Innocents. In Christianity it commemorates Herod’s mass slaughter of the infants in Judea. Nowadays, ironically, children love this day as it is full of practical jokes. Watch out for ridiculous headlines in the newspapers or giggling children up to mischief behind your back! Very much like April fool’s day.
If on the 31st of December a strange character hands you a nose, don’t be surprised. You would have just met L’Home dels Nassos (the man of the noses), a popular figure for the children. Parents will often tease their young ones by saying that he passed by so quickly that they missed him. He is supposed to have as many noses on his face as there are days left in the year so, on the last day, anyone could be the man of the noses! Find him as he parades through the streets of Barcelona. Later that evening, families will have a huge dinner and tradition dictates that, on the few strokes before midnight, you are supposed to consume 12 grapes. A fairly modern custom but great fun all the same. The countdown is a family event. Afterwards, the younger adventurers go out to party the night away.
You can almost taste the excitement of the children on the 5th of January because The Three Kings are arriving by boat to the port of Barcelona. The lord Mayor and citizens will be waiting to welcome them. The Wise Men are given the keys of the city so they can enter every home bearing gifts. Before then, they will partake in the Parade of the Kings. Huge decorated floats ramble through the streets, accompanied by music and sweet throwing. It is spectacular, loud and fun. Kids will be armed with plastic bags for storing their hoards of candy they have caught or gathered from the floor. Later that night, while Barcelona slumbers, presents will be deposited under trees. Expect to see nice shiny bikes or the latest computer pocket game being shown off around the streets the next day! What a lovely way to start a fresh new year.
Merry Christmas and happy new year to everyone from the Runner Bean team!
Ann Marie Brannigan
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