Catalans work hard to differentiate their culture and energy from the rest of Spain. The quirky customs in Catalonia are no exception. Celebrating with human towers, dancing eggs and fire runs, Catalans are proud of the traditions that have stood as symbols of their robust country for generations.
Tió de Nadal
Starting on the feast day of the Immaculate Conception (Dec 8), a log called the Tió de Nadal, but more commonly nicknamed the 'caga tió' (loosely translated into English as 'poo log'), is set up with legs, a smiling face, and a red hat. Families cover the Tió with a blanket, and every night until Christmas, they feed him. The children are meant to take good care of their little log so he will eventually poo out some really good treats and gifts for them. On Christmas Eve or Day, children sit on or near their log friend, beat him with a stick and sing the Caga Tió song. Though there are many variations, an example of the lyrics is as follows: Caga tió, hazelnuts and nougat / If you don't want to poo / We will hit you with a stick.
After singing the verses, the kids then reach under the blanket to see what their beaten log has pooped out that they can then gobble up or play with.
Continuing Catalonia’s fascination with poop is the 'caganer', which means 'the shitting one' in Catalan. This porcelain figurine, traditionally dressed in peasant clothes, is caught pants down, squatting and, you guessed it, defecating. The caganer is placed in the Nativity scene during Christmas and is a part of many kids’ favourite tradition of finding the hidden figurine. Believed to have first been used sometime during the 17th or 18th century, this exceptional nativity addition isn’t meant to be offensive. The caganer symbolised fertile soil and meant a year of plentiful crops. Nowadays, it's often thought to bring a year of good fortune. A tradition in Catalonia for nearly two centuries, the caganer has more recently taken on some other forms. In many shops around Barcelona you can find famous footballers, politicians, superheroes, religious icons and film stars caught in the compromising position of the caganer.
La Festa de Sant Medir
This annual festival on March 3 in the Gràcia neighbourhood is commonly known as Barcelona’s sweetest festival. Sixty tonnes of boiled sweets are thrown by horse riders to eager children lining Gran de Grácia and C/ de San Salvador. More than 26 parade groups, called 'colles', form the procession that ends in the Gràcia gardens. As legend has it, this sweet parade started in 1828 when a baker named Josep Vidal i Ganés fell ill and vowed to make an annual pilgrimage to Sant Medir chapel if God were to cure him. He got better, and every year afterwards he would beat a drum and throw beans to announce his pilgrimage. Today, the beans have been replaced with sweets in this festival that celebrates the saint who saved the baker.
On All Saints' Day (Nov 1), the Castanyada is celebrated across Barcelona and throughout Catalonia. Just like Halloween, its origins are in an ancient ritual festival for the dead. In Catalonia, families eat a meal of chestnuts, sweet potatoes, marzipan-based 'panellets' and preserved fruits. Some say the feast comes from traditional funeral meals, while others believe it comes from the meals people would eat after ringing bells in the early morning of All Saints' Day in memory of the dead. Today, the festival is personified by an old peasant woman in a headscarf roasting chestnuts on the street for sale. During this time (even if summer weather still prevails as in recent years), such vendors will pop up all round the streets of Barcelona, selling warm chestnuts wrapped in newspaper.
L'ou com balla
Sixty days after Easter Sunday, on Corpus Christi, locals celebrate the tradition of L’ou com balla, or 'the dancing egg'. For this day, church fountains all across Barcelona are lavishly decorated with flowers, and an egg is set atop the stream of water, where it does its dance. No one knows exactly how the curious tradition started, but the most widely accepted start date is 1637 at the Barcelona Cathedral. Today, locals flock there or to one of the other city churches to witness the egg, which represents rebirth or Holy Communion (depending on who you ask), bounce and twirl and dance.
Often the most striking event in Catalan festivals, like Barcelona's biggie, La Mercè (Sep 24), the 'correfoc', or 'fire run' represents the epic battle between good and evil. 'Colles de diablos', or groups of devils, dance to drums, push giant beasts through the streets and light fireworks on pitchforks. The devil dancers then weave through the crowd spewing sparks everywhere. Banned for over 30 years under Franco, the correfoc tradition came back ferociously in 1979. Now attended by thousands during each annual Mercè festival, this celebration fills the streets with fire and festivity. If you’re planning on joining the fun, you’ve got to wear some protective gear to avoid burns. But if you’re prepared, the energy is infectious, and before you know it you’re dancing with the devils and playing with fire.
L'home dels nassos
On December 31, children all across Barcelona and beyond go on a search for Catalonia’s most famous character, L'home dels nassos. Parents tell their children that the 'The man with the noses' has as many noses as there are days in the year, leaving children to search for a distorted figure with 365 noses. However, since the last day of the year is the only day he goes out, L'home dels nassos has only one nose left by the time the children spot him. He’s represented as a 'capgròs', a big-head festival figure, and presents the key to the New Year to the authorities.
Ball de bastons
The 'ball de bastons' is a Catalan folk dance that involves dancers hitting sticks together. Traditionally, dancers will have one or two sticks made of oak, and they perform different patterns of stick clashing while standing in two rows. Ball de bastons dancers are dressed in all white with red sashes and accompanied by a band made of tabor pipes or bagpipes. The dance can be seen at any traditional Catalan festival.
The sardana dance is a traditional symbol of Catalonia’s unity and pride. Dancers join hands in a circle and with their arms raised as they make precise steps to the music. As the small brass band plays, the circle becomes larger and larger, incorporating more into the national dance of Catalunya. Banned during Franco’s regime, the sardana now represents the Catalans' identity and unity, and the raising of their hands during the dance is a proclamation of pride. The best time to see it is Saturday evenings, when hundreds form circles outside the Barcelona Cathedral and dance away their differences.
Probably the most iconic of all the quirky Catalan traditions is the 'castells', or 'human towers'. First performed in 1712, the tradition has become a staple for Catalan festivals. The teams that compete to see who can create the best human tower are called 'colles castellers'. For a tower of any formation to be successfully completed, a single child must climb to the top, raise one arm and hold up four fingers, said to represent the four stripes of the Catalan flag. The impressive amount of teamwork extends to the 'pinya' – the crowd of people below acting as a base. Every stage is more precarious than the last as the strain on the lower castellers becomes greater with every passing minute. The pinya is also in place to act as a safety net in case the tower collapses. Working under the motto 'Força, equilibri, valor i seny', the castellers represent the strength, balance, courage and common sense ingrained into the people of Catalonia.