Caga Tio Is My Homeboy.

As the holiday season ends (unless you are an Orthodox Christian, in which case it ends on Jan. 6th) It becomes time to eat the last latke and wave goodbye to Santa.  I love the fact that I can celebrate these holidays wherever I am in the world, though not in exactly the same way.

Not too long before I flew to Barcelona in November, a friend told me about the Catalan tradition of “Caga Tio”, or Tio de Nadal.  Caga Tio literally translated means “Uncle Shit” (or Uncle Poop, for the PG version.) Apparently, instead of a jolly bearded fat man bringing presents down the chimney,  the Catalans have a painted log in the fireplace that “shits” out presents.

For Real.

Caga Tio has a little painted face, little stick legs, and a little red blanket to keep him warm. Come Christmas, the children of Catalonia  hit him with sticks to make him shit out presents. When Caga Tio is done shitting presents, he shits a herring. The children sing a song while doing this. Translated, it goes something like this:

Uncle Shit!

Shit log,

Shit turrón [a Catalan candy], hazelnuts and cottage cheese,

if you don’t shit well,

I’ll hit you with a stick,

Uncle Shit!

Caga Tio has it rough. Can you imagine the pressure?  you have to shit out presents, potentially with hard corners or weird shapes, and while you are trying to concentrate on that, a bunch of screaming kids are hitting you with sticks. I’d shit a herring early on purpose just to teach them a lesson. But then they still might hit me with sticks….

During Christmas, Catalans also traditionally sell these figurines called “Caganers” which are little statues of people defecating. I mean, really defecating-squatting, pants down, with a neat coil of feces below the buttocks. The most popular Caganers are those of famous people. When I was in Barcelona it was a bit early for Caganers but I did see a Muammar Quaddafi Caganer, a Vladimir Putin Caganer, a Barak Obama Caganer, a Kate Middleton Caganer and a Madonna Caganer. I also snapped this photo of a Caga Tio.

Royal couple caganers.

 I still love Santa, but I have a lot of respect and affection for Caga Tio. What I don’t have a lot of  affection for is what goes on in Austria and The Netherlands. Hailing from The Netherlands (and parts of Belgium), let me introduce you to Zwarte Piet, otherwise known as Black Peter.

Zwarte Piet

A traditional figure in Netherlands/Belgian folklore, Black Peter is Santa (or “Sinterklass”)’s servant. Other myths state that Sinterklaas used to be accompanied on Christmas by the Devil. When Sinterklaas triumphed over the Devil, the Devil became his slave….known as Black Peter.  As part of Christmas in the Netherlands and in Belgium there are all these parades with people dressed up as Zweite Piet, wearing blackface and a renaissance page outfit, following behind Santa. Recently, there has been media concern that Zwarte Piet is a racist figure (no duh) and efforts have been made to change the tradition, like having Piet’s face be painted all different colors (except for black), or scratching the Zwarte Piet character from the celebration. These measures were met with general public outcry.

Hajji Firuz

Historically, it is interesting to note that a very similar tradition exists during the Persian New Year celebration of Nowruz, where a character called Hajji Firuz, a Moor, travels alongside Amoo Norooz; A white bearded “Uncle” of the New Year. Revelers celebrating Hajji Firuz also put on blackface. I’m not going to judge  Zwarte Piet, or Hajji Firuz for that matter, though because of my historic/cultural background I do believe that the source of the mythology and the modern blackface-wearing is crossing a certain line.

Then again, what do I know? I just made a post about the cultural differences in humor, why should Zwarte Piet be any different?

Coming in at 3rd place is Austria’s Krampus. Krampus is a mythical demon-creature that accompanies St.Nicholas during Christmas, shaking rusty chains and bells to frighten children and carting off evil children in a sack to eat for dinner. This is scary. What is scarier is that this tradition isn’t some quaint Victorian thing. People today get dressed up and roam the streets in what must be the scariest f**** demon costumes I’ve ever seen, rattling rusty chains. Granted, I’m sure the fact that the demons are drunk and laughing probably makes it less scary….for me. But If I was a kid seeing that shit, I know the damage would be irreparable.

This demon means business, little children......

Krampus greeting cards, called Krampuskarten, have been given to children for hundreds of years. I saw this one, and it just makes me really, really uncomfortable.

So yes. Caga Tio wins.


Between the Rain; Christmas in Jerusalem.

I love Christmas. Growing up in New York,  how could I not? The lights, the window displays, the Salvation Army Santa ringing a bell and making me feel guilty for hurrying by…these are the things I love.  For the last 3 years, however, I haven’t  really acknowledged Christmas. First of all, I am not a Christian; Hanukkah is my bag. My love of Christmas is focused purely on the material marketing that makes it glitter. Tinsel! Trees! Coca Cola Santa commercials! Jingle Bells!

Secondly, there isn’t exactly what you would call “Christmas Spirit” in Israel. Oh sure, Israel has many of the most important sites of all Christendom-but for the majority of people living their day-to-day lives, Christmas does not exist on the radar. Christmas here manifests itself in subtler ways. The non-kosher Russian deli, for example, has a little plastic tree in the window. If you go to the airport around this time, you’ll see groups and groups of people; Japanese, German, Brazilian, Italian, Filipino, being led by tour-guide nuns on “Jesus Tours”.

I took no part in this. Christmas to me was Santa at Macy’s, not a church service in the sun.

A day before Christmas Eve though, I felt a change of heart. It occurred to me that while I loved traveling to other places to soak up their culture and history, I was living in one of the most culturally and historically significant places on earth….and I wasn’t taking advantage of it. My impending graduation made the situation all the more urgent. It had to be done now!

On such short notice, options were limited. Nazareth was out-it was a far drive and no one with a car was available. Bethlehem, where the real action is, required an advance ticket to the service at the Church of the Nativity. That left Jerusalem. With a group of similarly minded friends we boarded a bus to the epicenter of the three greatest monotheistic faiths of the world.

Right off the bat, the night promised to be interesting. December weather in Israel is mild, to say the least. The last 2 weeks had been sunny and warm, about 70°F. Christmas Eve, and God decided to water the plants. It was pouring. In the time it took us to debark from the bus and cross the street we were all soaked to the bone. Jerusalem is known for its’ cold nights, and at 10:30 pm in the rain it very quickly became frigid.

But nevermind that! It was Christmas Eve! In Jerusalem! The rain ended our preplanned leisurely walking tour of some famous sites. Our new goal was to find a church and witness the Midnight Mass. This turned out to be harder than expected. The Old City of Jerusalem, in the best of times, can be confusing and claustrophobic. We set out through the winding stone paths; weaving and turning , our shoes squelching on the glistening stone worn smooth by Crusader’s feet. How many millions of people before me had walked these same paths in the rain, all the while thinking “Damn, this is slippery.”?

Above us were medieval arches strung with gaily colored Christmas lights. We followed the sound of singing for a long while before we reached a dead end, face to face with a loudspeaker piping Christmas carols in Arabic. The sound echoed hollowly on the stone walls, almost drowned out by the fat rods of moisture drumming down on us. The street was deserted, except for an occasional figure hurrying by, huddled under an umbrella. We tried the doors of three churches only to find that they were locked for private services.

We laughed and joked, but there was no denying the eerie stillness, the tinny, indecipherable carols, the cold wet rain plastering my face as we turned yet another corner, found another dead end. Finally we reached the Hagia Sion, a Benedictine Abbey just outside the city walls, famed as the burial place of the Virgin Mary. There, we were told, the doors were always open. We entered the Church dripping, and were greeted kindly by a monk in long black robes. Making our way inside the packed interior, I was struck by the severe majesty of the building. We had just enough time to find a spot against a wall when the service began, at the stroke of midnight.

Angelic voices lifted sonorously to the ceiling, as a procession of white-robed monks made their way down the aisle. The service was held in a mixture of Hebrew, Latin and German, the native tongue of this order of Benediction monks. Many in the crowd joined in in German, many bent their heads in the prayers of their language. Many, like me, were rapt with attention at this beautiful custom not our own. I watched, and listened, humming along to the familiar chords of “Silent Night”, not understanding the words but feeling their beauty all the same.


Midnight Mass


I’m Not Funny In Your Language: The Bilingual Transfer of Wit.

Being funny requires wit, speed and timing; qualities I have…in English. Being funny in Hebrew is a different story. The wit may be there, but my brain cannot formulate the Hebrew words fast enough to match the pace of the conversation. Many times I find myself conducting a mental repartee with my Hebrew- speaking friends while remaining outwardly silent. This causes many of  the Israeli’s I meet to consider me a shy and quiet presence, an impression at odds with my alternate English- speaking identity.

I was thinking about the universality of humor last night when I went to popular Tel-Aviv comedy club The Camel Club with a friend to check out some stand up.

Watching the seated crowd laughing over their rickety comedy-club tables I realized that the world is divided into three distinct camps: those who provide humor, those who receive humor and those who do neither. Receivers are the ones who laugh, who acknowledge and appreciate the Provider’s efforts. Providers dole out their  humor to the specific community of Receivers for whom they serve. The very best Providers appeal to a wide range of Receivers, though most Receivers respond to only a specific kind of Provider . Everyone knows what a Neither is; the ones always slow on the uptake, the girl who never gets it, the guy who laughs at everything in order to cover up th fact that he can’t tell the difference between funny and not.

Listening to Hebrew stand-up was a lesson in  my own ability to become a Receiver in another language. Had someone provided an American with a translated transcript of the night’s material, I doubt he would have found even 30% of it remotely funny. This was because what made me laugh in Hebrew was not the same as what made me laugh in English, and though the sound of my laughter held no discernible difference, the quality of it was as different as night and day.

There are cultural differences. Israelis, for example, revel in the kind of Holocaust jokes that would get anyone in the States (or much of the world, for that matter) suspended or permanently shunned. A popular joke involves the high school trip many Israelis take to Poland to go on the “Holocaust Tour”. This trip is pretty much dreaded by Israeli teenagers weary of a year’s worth of intensive Holocaust exposure and unused to the harsh Polish climate. Referencing this, a comedian last night riffed:

” If I could go back in time, I would take baby Hitler and drop him off in the Caribbean. Let him do a Holocaust there so that 70 years later instead of freezing my ass in Poland I could’ve gone on a trip to the Caribbean.”

In English, this joke is unfunny and extremely offensive. In Hebrew, it is HILARIOUS. The comedian, Ayal, later told me of his trip to the U.S, where he participated in some New York City open mic nights (I gave him major props-open mic night’s are terrifying enough without having to perform in a language you have only moderate proficiency in.) He told the Holocaust joke above, and to his puzzlement, got booed off stage. Further confusing him, was what the American audiences did find uproarious. His name, Ayal Naor, translates into “Enlightened Moose.”

Now that’s funny.

Let It Snow….Or, Let The Dandruff Fall.

I’ve become, shall we say, disconnected from snow. After three years of balmy, 60°F winters and oven-hot summers it just doesn’t really have any place in my life anymore. So when WordPress came out with this nifty “holiday snow” effect, my first thought was “Oh, That looks like dandruff falling.”

I asked a few other people, and all they saw was delightful snow, shaking their heads sadly as I exclaimed “Really? come on, it TOTALLY looks like dandruff” to which they replied “Ew.”

I felt very alone.

And so I decided that to honor those memories of white winters past, whether it was snow or dandruff, it deserved to fall.


When I first went to summer camp ten years ago, my parents sent me off with two disposable cameras to document my  stay. Usually, the pictures would suck. Too dark, fuzzy, with a pinkish blob in the corner that was my thumb. Now, of course, “film” is a quaint notion; a trendy pursuit that shows your disdain for the masses of drones using digital.

Just to get things straight: digital is awesome. I am extremely grateful that I can take a well lit, clear photo and immediately check it to see if I like it. But the power of nostalgia is strong. I missed film. When my trusty 35mm Minolta decided to break two days before my trip to Barcelona, I decided to give in and buy two disposable cameras. I don’t know if you can tell from the picture above, but these were ghetto. Big, clunky, yellow, with a bright photo of a hot air balloon. They were perfect.

Using a disposable camera gives you both ultimate freedom and complete restriction. At first it stressed me out that I couldn’t take twelve versions of that tree until I got the lighting just right. Just 24 photos. One click, one shot. No zoom, no focus, no ISO number, no exposure time, no light meter, no second chance. I ended up treasuring my exposures too much; I had photos left over after I came back from Barcelona.

When I finally saw the developed film, I felt a rush of affirmation. Most of the pictures sucked. But there were a few, a precious few that I loved more than all my digital photos combined. It reminded of me of that feeling when your parents tell you they have a surprise for you. Chances are that it will end up being a let-down, but there is always the chance that they got it right.

This series was taken while bird-watching. We dared Zach to climb the tower. He did, and celebrated with the universal gesture of victory. Notice my thumb-blob in the corner.