When I moved with my husband and two young children from Brooklyn to coastal Spain late last year, we did not anticipate staying put; we’d planned to use the opportunity to explore as much of the Mediterranean as possible. The fountains of Rome, the Pillars of Hercules, carpe diem, and all that. But tragedy after tragedy struck, and the pandemic rages on.
Unable to travel, we’ve been mostly stuck on one remote hilltop, nestled in the fragrant orange and persimmon groves outside Valencia, and the pandemic’s instead granted us the rare and unexpected luxury of slowly, intimately becoming familiar with our new adoptive country, its people, plants, and peculiarities. Lovely and fascinating as it is here in the Sierra Calderona, however, as the holidays approach, there’s a new sadness setting in from being so far from old friends and extended family, and I’ve been digging frantically to uncover all the fun, festive local traditions we can embrace this year instead of visitors. We’re in luck; this corner of the world’s got a number of unique, hysterical, centuries-old end-of-year customs guaranteeing to bring a fun, relaxed Mediterranean vibe to our home as we power through the end of this difficult year, and ring in a new one.
For starters, we’ll be decorating our home for the holidays in the traditional Valenciano way, with locally handcrafted clay caganers, or Christmas crappers, popular in several Mediterranean enclaves from Portugal to Sicily. These hunched, pooping figurines originally depicted farmers, but now come in various forms ranging from rock stars, cultural icons and athletes to politicians, and adorn Nativity scenes or tabletops. So we’re ordering our very own pooping Trump to celebrate with, and a Ghandi or Frida Kahlo too, for balance. And because we’re a bit lonely, I’m strongly considering a set of The Simpsons family crappers too, for good company.We’re also bringing in a very special tradition from our neighbors to the north, in Catalonia, Aragon, and Andorra: a caga tiò, or poop log, which is an actual log from a tree, with a painted face and a red Santa sort of hat, that will make our kids earn their gifts this year, with hard work. First, the log requires loving care. It must be served daily treats of turron (a tasty holiday nougat candy) and other foods, and covered with a blanket. (The treats are eaten by the log at night, kind of how Santa eats the cookies left out when he visits homes in the U.S.) On Nochebuena, which is Christmas Eve (Dec. 24th), comes the really fun bit. Kids must sing the poop log this specific song, while beating it with a stick:
Caga tió/ caga torró/ avellanes i mató/ si no cagues béet daré un cop de bastó/ caga tió!
Poop log/ poop nougats (turrón)/ hazelnuts and mató cheese/ if you don't crap well/ I'll hit you with a stick/ poop log!
If the kids do well, the log will poo out presents or sweets, so that when the blanket is removed, gifts will appear. Many children here receive their main holiday presents on Jan. 6, delivered by none other than the Three Kings. But our kids are accustomed to unwrapping things under the tree on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, so we’ll stick to that schedule to avoid massive disappointment and meltdowns. If the Wise Men decide to deliver an extra little somethin’ somethin’ a week into 2021, to sweeten the New Year even further, I certainly won’t stop them — I’ll probably be too busy devouring a large fruity and delicious King’s cake, another regional holiday delicacy.
Finally, to bring an end to this unforgettable, miserable year, on Nochevieja (Dec. 31st), we’ll wear red underwear to match our fellow celebratory Spaniards, and eat exactly twelve grapes each, to bring joy, love, luck and prosperity in the New Year. We’ll spike our kids’ mineral water with pomegranate juice, pop some cava for an adult toast, blast some Gypsy Kings, and party the last of 2020 away. We’ll be missing our distant relatives, but thankfully we’ll still have FaceTime, perpetual sunshine, and all these Spanish traditions to keep us entertained, and looking ahead. ¡Olé!
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