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merry many christmases home
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Estic somniant d’un nadal blanc (I’m dreaming of a white Christmas)
What makes Christmas special for Catalans are three essential items: food; a pessebre (nativity scene) featuring a caganer (defecator); and the cagatió (a defecating log—sense a theme here?)
To enjoy a typical Catalan Christmas lunch, start with a pica pica, followed by escudella (a rich broth with large pasta shells), then carn d’olla (a large meatball called a pilota) and next a capon (capó). Pineapple (pinya) is a common Christmas dessert in many homes, and to round off the gluttony a selection of turrons—nougat-like bars—is served, along with neules, which are tube-like biscuits. Sant Esteve, December 26th, is a Catalan holiday and the day is marked, yes, with food. However, the spread is far less copious—the stars of the show are canelons made with leftover meat from the previous day’s bird followed by fish or seafood.
To get pessebres, caganers and cagatiós, head to the annual Fira de Santa Llucia market at the Cathedral (until December 23rd). A nativity scene can be kept to the basics (Jesus, Mary, Joseph, couple of shepherds, a donkey) or lean toward the elaborate, adding a running stream, Roman soldiers and, of course, the caganer. He is the little man in the corner (usually dressed as a Catalan farmer in a red hat, a barretina, but also available in the shape of celebrities, including politicians, footballers and the Pope) squatting down to give back to nature what he’s taken from it.
The cagatió is a log with a smiley face, barretina and legs, who is ‘fed’ by children in the days leading up to Christmas. On either the 24th or the 25th (families choose which suits them), his backside is covered with a blanket and the children hit him with sticks, demanding that he ‘shit out’ their gifts. “¡Caga tió, caga tió!,” they shout. Then the kids are gotten out of the way so the presents can be hidden under the blanket, ready for the children’s return.
Christmas is for the children
For the younger generation, the biggest night of the season doesn’t actually happen until next month: the evening of January 5th is when the Three Kings visit bearing gifts to be opened on the 6th (although nowadays, many kids also get a few presents on December 25th). On January 5th, the kings arrive by boat at the Port, then floats carry the three regents along crowded streets while bucket-loads of sweets are thrown to the assembled masses; some neighbourhoods also hold their own, smaller processions.
However, children’s activities go on right through December. Why not take the youngsters to Plaça Sant Jaume to see the Ajuntament’s nativity scene? Cautious parents might want to check it out on their website first, because a few years ago the creator came up with a controversially modern take on the stable setting, which did not fit with everybody’s idea of the story of the holy family. Another option is to head out of the city to one of the many Catalan towns that create a pessebre vivent (living nativity); the streets are decorated to look like Bethlehem of two millennia back, and the residents dress up to play the parts of the kind of people Mary and Joseph might have encountered while seeking a place to bring Jesus into the world.
Neighbourhood civic centres are a good place to head for festive activities including story-telling and puppet shows (usually in Catalan). To find your nearest centre civic, check with the local town hall. And the Fira de la Infancia, basically a big noisy event full of music, dance and games, is ideal to help keep children entertained in those long two weeks between Christmas Day and Kings.
Keeping it British
Being away from home, the Queen’s speech and eternally dashed hopes for a white Christmas is heaven or hell, depending on your point of view. But, however hard hearts may be toward a festive season that starts in late September and is pretty much over by 8am on December 26th, there are bound to be some elements of a home-grown Christmas that Brits will miss here. Help is at hand. Increasingly, over the past five years or so, local shops have begun stocking some of what we might consider essentials for the big day—for instance, if looking for Christmas decorations, homeware shops like Habitat and Maisons du Monde have all shapes and colours; for wrapping paper and cards charity shops like Intermón are good bets with pricier, hand-made versions available at Pepa Paper; you can find fresh turkey at your local butcher (although you may have to order it in advance); and last year, El Corte Inglés even had boxes of crackers (one type and not cheap, but still, it’s a start). However, if you prefer a one-stop shop for stocking up for Christmas, the British supermarkets—A Taste of Home in Barcelona and the New British Market in Castelldefels—are the places to go. Their Christmas ranges are nothing short of all-encompassing: mince pies, turkey stuffing, tins of both Quality Street and Roses, as well as cards, crackers and Advent calendars.
Greener than a Christmas tree
Celebrate an environmentally-friendly Christmas by buying less and recycling more. Send e-cards, reuse paper from last year and do a ‘secret Santa’ gift exchange with friends and family where each person buys a gift for just one other person.
For those seeking ideas for presents, Intermón (Oxfam’s Spanish equivalent) has set up its own version of the popular ‘give-a-goat’ campaigns that have had incredible success in the UK. Called ‘Algo más que un regalo’ (‘Something more than a present’), it is possible, for instance, to buy three piglets for a Nicaraguan family (€30), on behalf of someone else. Just to be clear, you won’t actually have to gift wrap three pigs then convince an unimpressed Correos worker to dispatch them to Latin America—rather you make a donation that will be spent in the relevant country. Gift vouchers are also a good option as the wrapping is minimal and the recipient can choose what to buy—most of the big chains here (e.g. FNAC, Sephora and Mango) now offer targetes de regal.
Investing in a fake tree is worth it if you plan to use it for a number of years. Otherwise, why not buy some new potted plants for your flat, decorate them for the festive season, then enjoy them in their natural state once Christmas is over. If you just can’t do without a real tree, when buying one check the label to make sure it comes from an origen sostenible (most Catalan trees come from controlled plantations in the Montseny and Guilleries area). If you do buy a real tree, when Christmas is done for another year leave it in one of the 210 recycling points (punts de recollida) set up in town by the council, and usually in place from January 7th to around the 14th; the trees collected are used for compost in the city’s parks and gardens.
A Taste of Home: Floridablanca 78, tel. 93 325 1797
New British Market: Esglesia 178, tel. 93 636 5465
Maisons de Monde: Avda Diagonal 406, tel. 93 368 3207
El Corte Inglés: www.elcorteingles.es
Pepa Paper: tel. 93 363 6750
Barcelona Ajuntament (for Christmas tree collection points and information about the crib in Plaça Sant Jaume): www.bcn.cat
Pessebres vivents: www.firesifestes.com
CHRISTMAS 2009 EVENTS
Fira de la Infancia: Dec 27th to Jan 4th 2010 www.festivalinfancia.com/
St George's Church: www.st-georges-church.com/, tel. 93 417 8867, Christmas fair, Dec 12th, Christmas Carol Concert, Dec 20th