Naturally, we are asked about the curious Catalan Christmas traditions. Especially as our Gothic Quarter Free Walking Tour passes through the Santa Llúcia Christmas market where there is much to see. The biggest curiosity is brought about by a figurine defecating near the nativity scene, children beating a huge piece of wood with a stick and the giant Turkish head spitting out sweets. Having lived here for so long, these traditions seem quite normal to me now but, if spending Christmas in Barcelona for the first time, they can appear to be truly bizarre.
So what is in store for you whilst visiting Barcelona over the Christmas period!
How to spend Christmas in Barcelona like a local
Christmas in Barcelona 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 December 25th. 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 January 5th. In Catalonia, you can also expect to find a yule log called El Tiò de Nadal, and this little chap delivers 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 with a stick. Singing a song, they encourage him to poo out all the desserts and presents. This definitely tops the Christmas stocking! You can see him being sold at the traditional Christmas fair of Santa Llúcia (in front of the Cathedral).
Wandering around this fair, you might stumble across La Carassa, a Turkish figure with a giant head and 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 delighted children stuffing fistfuls of treasures into their pockets. 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 considered politically incorrect. We can, however, still catch a glimpse of this old tradition with this much beloved modern version.
The nativity scene is still very important here and most families have one at home. Whilst enjoying Christmas in Barcelona do try to see the nativity scene in front of the town hall. It changes every year and the style is always different. One thing that will always be present though is El Caganer, a crouching shepherd with his trousers down and, yes, he is having a poo too! It is an old tradition which symbolizes good luck for the following harvest. Some also say it represents equality among mankind as every man has the same bodily functions. He is now available in almost all depictions, including politicians, footballers and celebrities!!!
But Christmas in Barcelona wouldn’t be the same without food. A very traditional dish during this holiday dish is Sopa de galets. 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 giant meatball to the stock and, yum, there’s your starter. The meat and vegetables are then served separately as a second course. Any leftover meat will be used the following day to make delicious cannelloni. Finish off your meal with torró, a sweet rich dessert made from almonds and honey that is sold soft and hard. My granny in-law always drinks a shot of anisette with it 😉
A couple of days rest and then the Day of the Holy Innocents on December 28th. 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 our April fool’s day.
If on December 31st 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. 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. For more of where best to go, have a look at our post about New Year’s Eve in Barcelona.
You can almost taste the excitement of the children on January 5th because The Three Kings are arriving by boat to the port of Barcelona. The 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, one of the highlights if you spend Christmas in Barcelona. 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 presents are deposited under the Christmas trees for the kids to open the following morning. Expect to see nice shiny bikes or the latest computer game being shown off around the streets that evening!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone from the Runner Bean team! Maybe we see you on one of our Free Walking Tours and we can share some of this time together 🙂
Main photograph by Carquinyol.